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Monday, June 15, 2009

The (almost) lost art of independent bookstores

On Sunday Beadhusband and I went to the Upper West Side to visit friends. We arrived an hour ahead of schedule (so desperate were we for some kid-free time) so we parted ways; he went to see the renovations at St. John the Divine, and I headed uptown looking for a Barnes and Noble. Happily, I found Book Culture on the way. I hadn't been in an independent book store in so long I had forgotten what a joy they can be. Instead of yards of bestsellers and the same old midlist fiction, Book Culture had dozens of little displays of thoughtfully collected books -- a pillar devoted to the latest indie graphic novels and related periodicals, shelves of literary magazines, tables of fiction and literary criticism, stacks of philosophy and art history and poetry. The best part about such a set up is the browsing, the discovery of books I had never heard of but I must own right away. I found the latest book by Rabih Alameddine, The Hakawati, about a storyteller (I read her I, the Divine years ago). I found a recent issue of McSweeney's with stories told in different obscure genres. I found several books on the art and criticism of stoytelling and genres, which only with great effort I did not purchase.

See a trend in what I like? I have yet to read The Child that Books Built by Francis Spufford for personal reasons that would be too complicated to go into, but I always remember a line from the New York Times book review that stated Spufford's "defense of those whose reading pleasure derives from storytelling and who unashamedly love thrillers, science fiction and metafiction." (Shapiro, James. "Confessions of a Literary Mind." New York Times Book Review 2 Feb. 2003: n. pag. New York Times. Web 15 June 2009.) That made me realize for the first time that my love of Lord of the Rings and Possession, Pride and Prejudice and Dictionary of the Khazars was related. I love storytelling -- the stories being told, and the ways they are told. I like both a good mystery and an experimental novel like The House of Leaves which is a typesetter's nightmare. I collect modern retellings of fairy tales because I want to see a new way of looking at them. To quote another book review, I am in that "extremely slender overlap between the set readers who like the ineffable, high-concept fiction of, say, Jorge Luis Borges or David Foster Wallace, and the set of readers who favor fondly comic portraits of small-town life in mid-century America after the fashion of Garrison Keillor or Jean Shepherd." (Miller, Laura. "American Meta." New York Times Book Review 6 Mar. 2009: n. pag. New York Times. Web 15 June 2009.) (The book that is the subject of that review, Flying by Eric Kraft, is on my must-buy list, natch.) On a fundamental level, both kinds of books entertain me, and that is the most important function of a book; I may at different points want to think, to puzzle, to feel, to relax, to analyze, but I always want to enjoy. An academic bookstore like Book Culture feeds my habit quite well.


  1. I <3 independent bookstores! One of my favorites (Shaman Drum in Ann Arbor) is going out of business at the end of this month after 30 years. :(

    Reading your reflections on genre, I think you would enjoy Michael Chabon's essays in his book Maps and Legends.


  2. Yay, my first comment! Thanks, Yael. I've read the Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Klay, but I didn't know he had essays, too. I'll check them out.