Wednesday, April 13, 2011

The Way of the Auroch

I am coming on to the home stretch of thirty years in bookselling. It’s a noble profession. Selling books hardly seems like selling at all. I’ve felt less like a merchant for all these years and more as if I’m doing my customers a giant favor by helping them see what’s there. “Here’s a gorgeous one,” I say, handing them Cloud Atlas. “See if you’re ever the same again.” Or, “It’s smart and it’s fun,” I say, showing them City of Thieves. “Take it on an airplane ride and the hours will fly along with you.” Or, “Try The Leopard,” I say. “I think you’re up to it.”
I fear I sound immodest. But literature expands minds and I’m a drug lord. I’m the Timothy Leary of the Bull’s Head Bookshop. I’m wearing a beret, sitting on my velvet hassock, handing out square-shaped party favors in dust jackets. I’m a librarian, only I’m not shushing.
Bookselling lends itself to a little humor. A bookstore delivers the perfect place for the sweet dorkyness of a spelling bee, or for your chance to vote for your favorite literary donkey or vampire or love triangle. Dorothy Parker Day at my store included ginger ale in martini glasses, and candy cigarettes; Marcel Proust Day sported madeleines and lime tea; and James Joyce Day, which we celebrated this March, was your destination for oatcakes, (root) beer and a sort of goofy reading of Finnegan’s Wake.
It’s been a wonderful life. I’m sort of hoping that my life’s not quite over—in fact, I need a job so if you hear of anything let me know. But I’m through with bookselling.
Simply put, I’m getting out while the getting’s good.
The thing of it is this: people would rather order from Amazon than go to a bookstore with, like, books in it. They want the bargains—as if books are shoes! As if books are bed linens!
It’s not only that, of course. Amazon’s fun! It’s the Great Democratizer, right? Amazon may be the granddaddy of the “My” Generation (as in My Amazon Account and My Wish List and My List That I Thought Of And Can Now See Online As If I Were David Brooks Or Maybe Even Dave Eggers). (Hm. I just thought of something. Maybe it’s just sour grapes. Maybe I simply resent sharing my crown as the Queen of the Arbiters. Well, Hell Yes, I resent it. I’ve been buying books for a big store for about a century, and suddenly Phil from Hoboken has as much street cred as I do because he likes Dune and he says so, in a colorful list with his name on it. Shoot.)

(This seems like a good time to say I’m something of a hypocrite.
Full disclosure:
--when I couldn’t find an agent for my novel, subsequently published by Putnam, I entered a contest sponsored by Amazon and did pretty well. Along the way, agents found me, and one of them sold my book.
--I check my novel’s status regularly on Amazon.
--I use Amazon’s website constantly while at work to help me find books for my customers.
So, okay, I’m a hypocrite.)

To continue:
The demise of the bookstore is not all about Amazon. The ebook isn’t helping. But as I sit here and write this, I can tell you that it wasn’t the ebook that killed Border’s. Nope, that was Amazon. We have yet to see the havoc that the ebook will wreak. But that’s sort of a different story in my point of view. Ebooks are just a piece of technology, like the cd was to the record. You shrug at progress. Oh well, is what you say to progress. But Amazon is a company. A greedy company with a greedy CEO, who’s willing to lose money on books in order to get his hands in the wallets of, well, you and yours, for all the future stuff he wants to sell you. You can’t stop progress. But someone should stop a CEO who’s dancing on the graves—dug by him-- of so many Mom & Pops.
So I’m the rat deserting the sinking ship. I hope it doesn’t sink. Maybe it won’t sink! I love the ship. I’ve loved my years on deck, from my ship’s boy’s duties all the way up to captain. I’ve weathered the storms and enjoyed the calm. The swells have been excellent. Whoa, look at those dolphins over there. What’s that, a mermaid?
This is all to say that you ought to go to a bookstore right now. Take a reusable bag. Go to an independent one. Or a college one. Or even, if you must, a remaining big box. Browse for a long time. Go into sections you’d normally shun. Go to the Economics section. Go to the Foreign Language Dictionary section. Walk up and down all the aisles. Camp out in front of literature and take your time choosing between Texaco and The Radetzky March and Middlesex. Hell, why choose? Buy ‘em all. And then go put them in your bike basket and turn right around and go back into the bookstore and spend some more time in there. Because I am here to tell you that if you wait a whole lot longer, you won’t get the chance at all. Soon, bookstores will be gone--gone the way of record stores, gone the way of the Auroch, gone the way of the wet nurse, never to come again.