Can’t bookstores all just get along?

08/26/2010 12:00 AM |

The days are getting shorter, the start of school approaches, and opportunities for lying about at the beach with a book are diminishing. Advance planning will be necessary to squeeze the last drops of pleasure out of summer. My plan includes finishing ‘The Big Sleep’ by Raymond Chandler because it is Floyd Memorial Library’s next book discussion topic and it is actually a lot of fun to read. Published in 1939, when Raymond Chandler was 50, this is the first of the Philip Marlowe novels. Vivid bursts of sex, violence and explosively direct prose changed detective fiction forever.

Then I will read ‘Fall Asleep Forgetting’ by Mattituck author Georgeann Packard. Her brand-new novel takes place in a small Long Island beach town during one lazy, hazy, crazy summer. It is getting really good reviews and I am madly looking forward to reading it as soon as I get a few hours in my bathing suit.

Another local author, Jackson Taylor, has just published an amazing novel, ‘The Blue Orchard.’ There are lots of wonderful things about this book, but part of what Taylor has done is to take the true life experiences of his own grandmother, and from listening to her, doing research, asking questions and listening again, he has imagined and written, as a novel, the story of her life. That story mainly took place in Harrisburg, Pa., where she was a white nurse working for an African-American doctor who performed abortions in the 1940s and ’50s, when they were illegal. The story goes deep into the American confusion about race, sex, religion, politics and morality and it does so without any soapboxes, just with lives that are as real as the lives of any of our own relatives.


Reading the daily newspaper today got me thinking how we often separate the world into two kinds of people, the glass-half-empty people versus the glass-half-full people, or strict constitutionalists versus flaming liberals, early adapters versus Luddites and so on. Probably things are more complicated than that kind of dualistic thinking allows for and really everyone is on various continuums, sliding about a bit on the arcs of differing opinions. I was perplexed by an article in the Other Times (“Bookstore Arrives and Sides are Taken” by Julie Bosman, Aug. 16, New York Times) about the rivalry between two bookstores in Westhampton, and it makes me wonder whether I am a lunatic optimist or a laissez-faire capitalist or both or what?

There are those who feel that there are only X number of people in any locality who are going to buy books and therefore, if there are two stores selling books, they will compete for the finite number of dollars that the finite number of people have to spend. If you think this way, then you have to think that all libraries are in competition with all bookstores; that library book sales are in competition with library circulation figures; that, for instance, here in Greenport, our wonderful purveyor of used books, The Book Scout, is locked in mortal combat with our terrific independent bookseller, Burton’s Books, and both of them against us at Floyd Memorial.

Nothing could be further from the truth. That is some kind of old school economics based on some notion of scarcity that is entirely beside the point.

I am no economist, but it seems to me that what we are buying these days are experiences, not widgets, and while books as objects may be sort of widgets in one sense, the reading, the thinking about them, the browsing, the choosing, the talking about books are what constitutes the experience and that experience is enriched by a community of book lovers. A village where people can walk from one bookstore to another should be a happy place, for the booksellers as well as the buyers, because the very fact of choice and multiple opportunities makes more people buy more books. That model seems to work in Greenport for ice cream, dirty martinis and coffee. Why, in Westhampton, should it be so different for books?

There are people in Greenport who feel about coffee shops a bit like some of these Westhamptonites feel about bookstores. There was worry that Starbucks would eclipse Aldo’s, not to mention Bruce’s or D’Latte. It is a little different, because Starbucks is more like a Barnes and Nobles, a national corporate entity, but still, when you go in, there are local kids serving your coffee, art by local artists on the walls and good coffee of a certain sort. Aldo’s has what might be the best coffee in the world and a very idiosyncratic ambiance. Cafà society in this town can often be seen for a while in one place, then for a while in the other. There is no need to be monogamous in one’s relationships with coffee shops or bookstores. Thank goodness.

Ms. Johnson, of Greenport, is assistant director at Floyd Memorial Library and moonlights as an artist and newspaper columnist.