Friday, August 19, 2016

Amy Gustine on the Virtues of Both Virtual and Real Bookstores

In the 12th in a series of posts on 2016 books entered for The Story Prize, Amy Gustine, author of You Should Pity Us Instead (Sarabande Books), confesses a reluctant fondness for a certain online retailer—and nostalgia for the sense of discovery that browsing in the bricks-and-mortar world can bring.

I have a dirty little secret: I don’t hate Amazon. I like being able to buy used books, out of print books, weird books, twenty books on the same abstruse topic, e-books, and just about everything else in the world without leaving my house. Like a lot of writers, I’m a homebody and an introvert. Plus I’m always getting interested in some crazy idea and doing research that requires a pile of books unlikely to be stocked at even the biggest brick-and-mortar.

These pro-Amazon sentiments aren’t popular and I understand why. I’m a “both” kind of person. I see both sides (most of the time), and I want it both ways. I think we ought to have online and bricks-and-mortar stores. I’m reminded of this every time I go to Ann Arbor, about an hour from my house. When I walk into Nicola’s or Literati and the particular scent of paper and ink hits me, when I stroll slowly by the tables and shelves, waiting for that serendipitous moment when a particular cover grabs my attention, or when I spot an irresistible title.
Bricks 'n' Mortar: Ann Arbor indies

Each and every time I think of the store I miss most, one of the many that fell to the pressures of profit margin: Thackeray’s. It was in my hometown, Toledo, Ohio, about a two-minute drive from my mom’s house. On Sundays Thackeray’s put out big oak—yes, that’s right, oak—tables and laid out discount books. My dad would pick me up for our Sunday outings and our first stop was always Thackeray’s. He’d grab the Sunday New York Times, then we’d browse, always the sale table, sometimes inside, each showing the other books we liked. Eventually, when he saw me spending long enough studying one in particular, he’d ask, “Do you want it?” He never once said no to my choice. Dad’s philosophy is any book is a good book. When you were shopping at Thackeray’s, with a curated inventory, that was a reliable theory, but what it meant was something much more profound. It meant that my interests were respected and valued. I always felt like a grown up when Dad and I walked out, each holding our selections. I learned something every week about what he thought was interesting, and he paid me the compliment of wanting to know what I enjoyed reading.

For the sake of convenience and cost we’ve sacrificed an experience that for me was the gateway to a life-long love of reading, but even more than that it was about sharing interests with my dad and learning from him why all these books, from gorgeous coffee table spreads to pulp mysteries and great literature, mattered. But this kind of loss is hardly unique to Amazon. The Internet has stolen many other pleasures and possibilities. Collectors of anything from political ephemera to art pottery used to spend Saturdays hopping from one garage sale or antique mall to another, experiencing the thrill of luck when they found a new addition at a good price, talking to the proprietor, maybe making a new friend or learning a new fact about the things they collected. One summer my mother-in-law came back to the cottage we were renting triumphantly bearing a Roseville wall pocket vase she’d come upon down the road. Twenty dollars! A great bargain. It was a gift for me, which is why she was so proud.  Finding something for ourselves is never quite as fun as finding a treasure for someone we love.

The Internet has taken such moments away from us. Now, you sign on to eBay, or some other site and within a moment, there the treasure sits, just waiting for you to key in a credit card number. That’s no fun at all. Every summer my father took me to the Crosby Art Festival at our local botanical gardens. I would browse the jewelry booths, select a handmade silver ring or bracelet. My dad would choose a birdhouse or a decorative plate for his mother’s birthday gift, first asking my opinion of his choice. My daughter signs onto Etsy without leaving her room.

Efficiency and abundance, especially when it comes to books, have tempted me like so many others, but come Sunday mornings, when I sit down to read The New York Times on my iPad, I think about Thackeray’s, and how much I’d like a reason, and a neighborhood store, to go buy a newspaper, flip through the sale books, and see what might light up my child’s face.