Hi, guys! Today, I read the following essay live at Brooklyn's BookCourt in celebration of Independent Bookstore Day, and thought I'd publish it here, too. YAY BOOKS!
|Yeah, I know--that's not technically a book. But it IS a purple corduroy jumpsuit, so act impressed.|
I came a little... late to reading. When the subject comes up, I usually blame this on my early education, which mostly took place in a Hobbit hole of a Waldorf classroom outside of Austin, Texas. Day after day we sang songs and leapt off of tree stumps and wove rough cornhusks into the sort of dolls the Blair Witch might have hung on her Christmas tree. But we didn’t learn to read.
My parents, who both then and now took pride in their impressive and eclectic home library, read to me often, but I much preferred it when they made stuff up. For a number of years in the early 1980s for example, I forced my father into an episodic tale of a princess trapped in a castle cellar with a family of trolls—a sort of proto-Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. I begged any adult I could find to tell me “boo-boo stories”—which were detailed accounts of every time they had ever been badly injured, and one memorable babysitter made Ronald and Nancy Reagan the protagonists of his improvised tales, sending them to fantastical places like outer space, or the vaguely R. Crumb-inspired “Big Butt Island.” But I still did not learn to read.
The turning point came when I left the rustic embrace of Rudolph Steiner and transferred to a local public school for first grade. I was placed into the slowest reading group, but showed such promise that my teacher decided to move me into a different class. Unfortunately I didn’t understand at the time that this was a compliment, and so when she attempted to bodily remove me from my desk I responded with my first—and, so far, only—attempt at fisticuffs. As penance, I was forced, finally, to learn to read.
It’s become cliché to describe a relationship with books as “a love affair,” but in my case I think it’s distressingly accurate, as almost every romantic flush or fallout I had with a partner, I had with a book first. As a child I would lie in bed with them, figuring things out, slowly burying us both in a pile of cracker crumbs—which still my signature move. As an adolescent I experienced alternating, hormone-fueled bouts of euphoria and crushing betrayal. To this day I cannot forgive Louisa May Alcott for letting that little bitch Amy March end up with my Laurie, and I let her know it with some extremely emphatic graffiti on the spine of my dog-eared paperback. As an adult I tend to treat my books not unlike Jeff, my husband of 8 years: they’ve all been read and re-read, over and over, their contents known but no less precious. Their dust jackets don’t fit like they used to, but I don’t make them feel bad about it, just like they don’t make me feel bad about the fact that I sometimes fall asleep while reading them.
But I suppose the end of the similarities between my books and my men is that I prefer to buy the former whenever possible. I love and value libraries, but I have trouble following their rules. I’m not great with due dates, as evidenced by the book on the Emperor Tiberius that I took out in fifth grade and returned on the way to a friend’s Sweet Sixteen. I fold down the corners of pages to mark my place. I bring books to the beach, staining their covers with smears of sunblock and filling their spines with deposits of sand that will later sift out into my sheets, comingling with the cracker detritus. And I still occasionally feel the need to express my feelings in the margins. So with all due respect to Dewey and his decimals, bookstores are clearly where I belong. And at the risk of seeming like a total suck-up, I’ve taken it upon myself to list for you the five reasons that I think independent bookstores should be considered national treasures.
1. They’re romantic
It’s a scientific fact that there are only a handful of jobs you’re allowed to have if you’re one of the leads in a romantic comedy: dog walker, architect, kindergarten teacher, cupcake chef, florist, special needs veterinarian, suspiciously well-paid magazine writer, and independent bookstore owner. So it stands to reason that the likelihood of meeting your soul mate in one is high.
It is here that I will confess to not having any bookstore memories interesting enough to spin into a single story today, and that is because all of my bookstore memories involve me, standing alone, waiting for someone who looks like Idris Elba or Ethan Hawke to make meaningful eye contact with me from across the room. This has never happened, unfortunately. It could be my palpable anxiety, it could be my wedding ring, or it could be the fact that the book I’m conspicuously reading is never Anna Karenina or even Lolita, but inevitably one of the salacious autobiographies by erstwhile supermodel-cum-reality star Janice Dickinson.
2. They’re beautiful
Carefully curated and lovingly decorated, most indie bookstores I've visited make big box stores look like one of those shipping containers where Dexter killed his victims. Truth.
3. They support the community
Shopping at an indie bookstore is basically like joining a CSA, only you learn new words and don’t have to pretend you know what to do with three pounds of kohlrabi.
4. You can meet authors and observe them in their semi-natural habitat
[Imagine me doing an offensively bad David Attenborough impression] The American novelist stands nervously at the front of the room. While this species feels quite at home behind a keyboard in its unmade bed, interrupting its writing approximately every ten seconds to tweet about how hard it is working, in public it can appear standoffish and even vaguely nauseated at the prospect of reading its work aloud to mammals other than its house pets.
5. They’re REAL
I’m no saint; I don’t buy everything in a physical store, despite my fantasies of being the kind of person who could bike around the city with a baguette under one arm without being instantly killed. I have, I’ll admit, fallen into Amazon k-holes on occasion, emerging confused and temporarily blinded.
There’s a disassociation inherent in online shopping—you click a few buttons and enter some numbers, but you have no memory of seeing or touching what you’ve bought, and so when the box—seventeen times the size necessary for its contents and filled with enough bubble wrap to clothe Lady Gaga for the coming winter—finally arrives, you have no idea what it is.
There’s something wonderful about holding a book in your hands, feeling the weight of it. You don’t have to judge it by its cover, or by its misspelled, all caps one-star reviews. You can judge it by more intimate factors, like the font choice, whether you might slip a disc carrying it in a shoulder bag, or what kind of Zoolander face the author is making in his or her photo.
There’s also something lovely about buying it from a real person, a person who’s working there either because they’re very passionate about books or because they’re hoping for a meet-cute with a quirky but unbelievably attractive dog-walker played by Paul Rudd.
Both of which, I might add, show incredible character.
Some of my favorite local(ish) indie bookstores, in no particular order, are: BookCourt, Oblong Books & Music, McNally Jackson Books, Greenlight Bookstore, Community Bookstore, and R.J. Julia Booksellers. Rhapsodize about yours in the comments, or just share more gifs. I can never have enough gifs; they truly are the gifs that keep on gifing.