To the mattresses

literary tattoo

Imagine with Steinbeck

It’s been a red letter summer. I finally accepted Boston as my home. I climbed a mountain. I ate octopus. I fell deeply in love with John Steinbeck. His words soothed me during the hottest of July days like a cool stream in the Michigan wilderness. His discussion of sin in East of Eden even has me pondering a pretentious literary tattoo.

This summer saw the fall of a giant, an institution, that truth be told had been teetering for quite some time. And I’m not talking about Arnold, or Bin Laden, or Justin Beiber’s hair.

I’m talking about the fall of Borders. The emptying of bookshelves is about the saddest thing I can think of. It hurts the very part of my heart that houses all I hold dear, like my mother, and cranberry sauce, and moccasins.

Your fancy book learnin’ ways are being threatened, dear friends. On less chain means countless fewer author readings, less promotion of new voices, fewer books available to browse and buy and read and love in less affluent, out-of-the-way places.

With the closing of Shaman Drum and the Borders flagship store, Ann Arbor has rendered itself nearly useless when it comes to book shopping. Though the best of us know that Schuler Books in East Lansing has always been where it’s at.

This past weekend I took my first pilgrimage to the book lover’s mecca. If you don’t know that I’m talking about Strand in NYC I suggest you do your research immediately before you go on declaring yourself a bibliophile.

Established in 1927 on Fourth Avenue, Strand was at one time a part of New York’s Book Row. Book Row was a series of 48 bookstores started in the 1890’s that ran from Union Square to Astor Place. Or as I like to think of it: heaven.

Strand is famous for a few things:

  1. 18 miles of books (for reals)
  2. used, rare, and out of print editions (beyond your wildest dreams) and
  3. independent ownership.

Strand stacks

18 miles. No joke.

The past few years has borne witness to an interesting phenomenon: the triumph of select indie bookstores. While indies can’t offer huge price cuts, they do offer a quality of service and a customer experience that was never successfully reproduced by chain stores. With good service comes a brand of loyalty that no rewards card can replace. But not all indies have been successful by any means.

Shopping at an independent bookstore when cheaper options like Amazon are available usually indicates that the patrons are affluent. Also, they value education and local businesses and put their money where their support is.

Unfortunately, books are a recreational good, not strictly necessary for survival, though you could argue for hours on all the ways they nourish. Shopping at independent book stores is a certain type of socioeconomic privilege often not acknowledged. Indies do best in upper-middle-class neighborhoods where education is king. Ann Arbor (home to U of M), East Lansing (home to MSU), Grand Rapids (home to Grand Valley State University). Here in Boston, indies are currently flourishing in Brookline (the only city in the world capable of producing Conan O’Brien) and Cambridge (Harvard). It’s no mystery why Strand thrives in a place like New York City. Count all the colleges within city limits and you’ll have your simple solution.

No matter your feelings on corporations are, it’s a sad day to see a bookstore fold. The simple equation is this: Fewer bookstores=fewer books.

Sometimes life plays out like an anti-You’ve Got Mail. FOX books has fallen. Shop Around the Corner though, well, she’s ready to go the the mattresses.


Still here. Still perky.

A quick note to anyone in NYC: If you show your Borders membership at Strand you’ll get a free (undisclosed) gift!

One Response to “To the mattresses”
  1. Chris Carpenter says:

    I’ve always hated You’ve Got Mail. It is satisfying to think of Fox books losing, though I wholeheartedly agree that the loss of any bookstore is an occasion for mourning.
    The number of bookstores in Cambridge was breath-taking. I brought back so many books that my luggage was 12 pounds over weight. Also, when you are next in Chicago, Powel’s near U of Chicago may be my favorite Chicago bookstore (recently unseating Myopic in Wicker Park).
    I assumed after this post started by stating that it was a red letter summer it was going to be about how you got to have lunch with me when I was in town.

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