Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Save the Bookstores!

Sadly, bookstores are fast becoming a dying breed in the United States.  Having grown up in a small farming community in northern Maine that had no less than three of them, I assumed that bookstores were a given part of the landscape of any city or town of any size and always would be, much like a post office, school, library or church.  Even as a kid, I could spend hours in a bookstore (and the local library as well), exploring books and topics I had often not even considered.  And any trip out of town inevitably meant a chance for me to check out the bookstores in other locales.  For that matter, it still does.

In the mid-1990s my eyes were opened to the plight bookstores face when I started dating a woman who worked in a terrific little independent one near where I lived.  It was a quirky little place, one of the first bookstores I knew of that served coffee and offered places to sit and read.  The selection was wide for such a small shop, and they enjoyed a small but loyal clientele.  It was the kind of place that people made a point to visit when they were in town, myself included.

My girlfriend was worried, however.  A new “big box” book superstore, part of a large national chain, had just opened in the next city over, offering even greater variety of titles than the little indie at which she worked, and at prices that were often quite a bit lower.  While the indie store’s base clients held firm, the casual book shoppers who often made the difference between the store making a profit or not in a given month were flocking to the superstore.  As much as I loved the little indie bookstore, I was a struggling young schoolteacher with a limited budget for books for my students, and found myself frequently shopping for classroom literature at the superstore as well, so as to stretch my dollars as far as I could.  I still patronized the little indie, but financial reality prevented me from doing as much business there as I would have liked.

A few months after my girlfriend and I began dating, that little indie bookstore where she worked went out of business.  The superstore ten miles away had won the battle.  In the final days of the indie, I spent a lot of money on discounted books at their going-out-of-business sale, and even purchased some of their fixtures for use in my classroom.  I had incredibly mixed feelings doing so, mind you.  It made me feel like some sort of vulture, scavenging from the remains of something that was once so vital.

By the middle of the first decade of the twenty-first century, there were not nearly as many independent bookstores compared to just a generation earlier.  The large chain superstores had taken their toll and carved out a good chunk of the book-buying market.  Not only could they provide greater variety and lower prices for books, but they also had the room to sell music and videos, and to install full-service cafes as well.  They had the ability to set up discount clubs and to stage special in-store events on a regular basis with which most independent bookstores just could not compete.  

It wasn’t all wine and roses for the superstores, however.  The internet was taking a larger piece of the book sales pie.  Online-only booksellers with gigantic warehouses but no actual physical stores were growing in popularity.  If the chain superstores could deal with books in volume, the internet retailers, unrestricted by geography, could deal with them in MEGA volume.  You could shop for an almost infinite variety of books from your living room, and easily compare prices to get the very best deal.  E-books, which you could purchase usually much cheaper than a paper copy, and begin reading instantly, also grew in popularity.  That was and is a tough thing for any bricks-and-mortar bookseller to go up against, even a large corporate chain.  Several national chains went out of business, and others have closed stores or changed their marketing focus in order to try and stay afloat.  Unless you have a strong online component, these are very hard times indeed for booksellers.

Compounding the troubles is a problem faced by all booksellers, whether independent or chain, online or bricks-and-mortar, and that is the sad fact that people are just reading fewer books these days.  You don’t have to look very hard to see that more people, especially the under-30 crowd, are interested in television, video games, and interactive media than the “old-fashioned” linearity of a book as a means to pass the time.  It’s a seismic cultural shift.  I frankly don’t think it can be fully stopped, nor do I think it is entirely a bad thing, but I do think it can be slowed, and that we should be doing what we can to read more books ourselves and to encourage others to do the same.

I’ve had an e-reader for over three years now.  When I first got it, I used it almost exclusively for my reading.  Over time however, I’ve cut back on its use, and not intentionally.  I’ve just found myself drawn back to the sensation of having an open book in my hands.  I still read e-books, but the ratio of actual books to e-books for me has shifted to about 70% : 30%.  The whole e-books versus “paper books” debate is fodder for a separate post.

When I buy a paper book, I have been making an effort to do so from bricks-and-mortar retailers over the past few years, and avoid the online-only retailers when I can.  Bookstores still hold their allure for me, and I find myself drawn to them whenever I am nearby and have a free moment.  I travel around the state of Maine a lot, and make it a point to explore at least one or two bookstores on every trip.  Even if I have a stack of books still waiting to be read, I always buy at least one book when I visit a brick-and-mortar bookseller.  It’s not unlike buying a glass of lemonade from a child’s stand along the sidewalk.  Even if you are not thirsty, you want to support and encourage the effort.

To that end, I’d like to share a list of some of my favorite bookstores that I have explored in my travels in Maine.  Some of independent, some are parts of small regional chains, and a couple of part of large corporate chains.  

  • Sherman’s Books and Stationery: A particular favorite. I’ve been to the stores in Bar Harbor, Freeport and Camden, and look forward to visiting their brand new store in the Old Port in Portland soon.
  • Longfellow Books: For me, this is one of the very hearts of downtown Portland. I have yet to make a trip to the Old Port without stopping at Longfellow.
  • Owl & Turtle: A cozy must-visit when exploring downtown Camden
  • Stone Soup: Secondhand books galore in Camden
  • The Briar Patch: Children’s books and toys in downtown Bangor.  A great place for gifts for the younger set.
  • BookMarcs: A Bangor institution, featuring an extensive collection of Stephen King’s work, among numerous other titles.
  • Barnes & Noble: While a different overall experience from the smaller bookstores, I really enjoy spending a few hours at B&N’s Augusta store whenever I get a chance.
  • Bull Moose: With stores in Maine and New Hampshire, Bull Moose is my very favorite music store.  Their locations in Bangor, Scarborough and Mill Creek in South Portland have extensive book selections as well. Between the books and the music, I could literally spent a whole day at Bull Moose.
  • Books-A-Million: Another national chain, BAM has stores in South Portland, Auburn and Bangor that I can explore for hours.

Fortunately, there are still many more Maine booksellers than these, though not as many as there once were.  I’ve chosen to restrict this list to my favorites that I have visited over the past few years.   With travel season not too far away, I am looking forward to visiting most of these again, and highly encourage you to do the same.  We are all better off for having thriving bookstores in our communities.