I once lived over a bookstore. I know what you’re thinking, but this was in Manhattan and on the 11th Floor of the building that housed Barnes & Noble, then more famous as an academic book center that would buy back your books and sell you new ones. I doubt it had a cafe then (’88-90), or much motivation or room to permit private work nooks. But it was one of the greatest of indoor common spaces open late in the city to share with students of all ages, representing every race and culture. Melting Pot Manhattan.
B&N College division still operates nearly 800 stores at universities across the country. But the Barnes and Noble branch you may still have in your community if you’re lucky, is getting hammered by Amazon’s online advantage. But then again, who isn’t in the world of retail? True, the ‘big box’ discounter trend is nothing new. Sam Walton launched his first discount store in 1962. But Internet shopping, an answer to our addiction to convenience and speed, is the obvious accelerator. Driven by any darkened strip malls or once-thriving downtowns lately? I have, even in an upscale neighboring town. (Confession: although I’ve quit Prime and vowed only to use Amazon to read the free samples of books, then buy them used elsewhere, I do occasionally falter.)
That said, if you’re as hungry for any bit of good news these days as I am, you might be pleased to learn that independent book stores are making a comeback. The Book Cellar in Lake Worth just south of me, is the perfect example of what an independent establishment can do for a community, beyond featuring books and hosting authors the old-fashioned way. With its cafe offering coffee, wine and light fare, including many vegan and gluten-free choices, this cozy, friendly corner spot on busy Lake Avenue has become a meeting place for a number of organizations. As long as you reserve in advance and use their food service, there’s no charge for the space. How many little mom-and-pop coffee houses and taverns in Philadelphia served as launch pads for the designers of the American Revolution? You might well ask.
I’ve hosted a meeting at The Book Cellar with my spoken word troupe and Emergency Medical Assistance, preparing for last year’s show of monologues on abortion. The Palm Beach County Chapter of Women’s March meets there regularly, and so does the Jazz on J Street group, well-known for its encouragement of young performers. The Book Cellar is open late, so you can stop in after a movie at yet another local indie favorite, the Stonzek Cinema, now the only screen in my area you can find good indie films. These include well-made international films that remind you there’s a much bigger world out there. One of their bravest choices in subject matter for 2018 was First Reformed starring Ethan Hawke, about a pastor confronting not only his own dark night of the soul, but religious extremism, corporate domination, and environmental apocalypse. Maybe it was too dark to make the cut at Oscar time, though early reviewers were predicting ‘Best Picture.’
OK, eye-rolls for my nostalgia for little book stores or for Saunders Hardware in my New Jersey hometown (especially after a frustrating search at Home Depot). Or when I fondly recall the barber who cut my little boy’s hair; or the laundry that always remembered you liked light starch in the dress shirts; or the shoe or jewelry repair places. Does anyone fix anything, any more? We are not better off today with the homogenized culture that has overtaken us like a tsunami, or with social media becoming a license to mislead and inflame. Already, we’ve become less interesting and interested; less engaged with each other, socially and politically, and in real-time; less open-minded, more tribal, risk-averse, fearful. Not to mention grammar-challenged. But the bigger question is, what will happen as we become increasingly afraid to speak up or challenge authority; when the hand that feeds (houses, clothes, and entertains) us, holds a big stick? Or a gun?
Granted, compared to the challenges we as a species will be facing in the next decade(s) on a hotter planet, to push back against Big Box World and switch our allegiance to the small farmer, artisan and craftsperson, family-owned business and so on, is a drop in the ocean. But maybe it could improve our lives and our communities in ways that count but can’t necessarily be accounted for. That’s worth the candle.