A Book Lover’s Lament

I can’t seem to travel anywhere without discovering the local bookstores and eventually succumb to spending hours in at least one of them. It’s a disease I’m still afflicted with even though I ended my days as a bookseller years ago. Not that I’m complaining, more that I’m trying to rationalize why I visited so many bookstores while in New Hampshire and Boston as well. Fortunately I can only carry so many volumes back with me on the plane, but equally unfortunately it’s so damn easy to mail books back to oneself or via all-too-cooperative bookdealers encountered along the way.

antique.jpgWhile I no longer scout for books worth reselling, I am still an avid reader and a passionate book collector within topics…or to put it another way, I usually don’t refuse a good book that serendipity so wisely places in my path. Just like the old days of bookselling I still go out with my books-wanted list, just in case. These days said list contains mostly books within medieval history, monasteries, writing, and a smattering of other odd titles in even odder categories. And although the list includes mostly obscure books, fate still taps me on the shoulder now and then and uncovers one or two of the listed desired titles, or worse, shows me ones I didn’t even know existed.

Usually I resist temptation because the prices on books on my list tend to be high, but as evidenced on this trip, such logic fails me when I stumble upon dealers and stores that offer great titles at irresistible prices. The Toadstool Bookstore in Peterborough, NH has one of the best used sections I’ve seen in a very long time: lots of old obscure titles at amazingly good prices. A few other stores we stopped at in the area unfortunately had decent prices as well, meaning I’ll be shipping home a big box myself in addition to the one I had the next dealer ship for me.

On this trip, one of those “small world” moments happened to me that deserves sharing. Years ago I frequently bought books for resale from Gus of Aardbooks who always had interesting nonfiction titles. I knew Gus was in New England, but had long forgotten about him in the 8 or 10 years it’s been since I’ve been in contact. On this trip to a Keene antique mall I picked up a pamphlet promoting the members of the New Hampshire Antiquarian Booksellers Association. As I was browsing the pamphlet over coffee my eyes settled on “Aardbooks.” “Hey, I know this guy!” I exclaimed. Turns out Gus/Aardbooks is in Troy, a town within 15 minutes of Keene. So before I left, I visited Gus, whom I’ve never met until now, and we reminisced over old times selling books back when it made sense to do so. Gus made me a deal I couldn’t refuse and ended up buying a box of books (medieval) that, once again, I couldn’t resist.

Visiting Gus started me thinking about my days selling books, and soon I was once again bemoaning the erosion of bookselling and bookstores (real bookstores owned by real people, not the faceless mega-stores). By now most people are aware that most of the locally owned bookstores have disappeared over the last ten years or so due largely to these super stores. While the used book business still thrives to a small degree, it’s hard to find any independent bookstore selling new titles anymore, and I’m not sure how long we’ll see used stores survive the rising real estate costs and lack of customers.

In researching a few facts to flush out the Newbury Street article I posted before, I ran into the jeremiad reproduced below which made the rounds of blogs earlier in the year. The author, whom I couldn’t trace, is a bit cynically throughout, but his points are pretty valid (and depressing). Whatever your views are about the whole issue of mega-retailing eliminating small shops, there’s no question in my mind that we’re evolving towards higher illiteracy and fewer deep thinkers. Reading is down, schools are offering alternative ways of learning requiring less reading, and our media-drunk society cares more about being entertained through short-term dazzle than through imagination stirred by words and thoughts found in books. It’s a sad portend to think that those of us who appreciate books and still read deeply are a dying breed.


The Crepuscule

Twelve reasons for the death of small and independent book stores

Ever thankful to those who made the effort before us, with heartfelt apologies to those who are still in the fight and the few who support them — offered upon the closing of Avenue Victor Hugo Bookshop in Boston.

1. Corporate law (and the politicians, lawyers, businessmen and accountants who created it for their own benefit) — a legal fiction with more rights than the individual citizen, which allows the likes of Barnes & Noble and Wal-Mart to write off the losses of a store in Massachusetts against the profit of another in California, while paying taxes in Delaware — for making ?competition? a joke and turning the free market down the dark road toward state capitalism.
1. Publishers — marketing their product like so much soap or breakfast cereal, aiming at demographics instead of people, looking for the biggest immediate return instead of considering the future of their industry, ignoring the art of typography, the craft of binding, and needs of editing, all to make a cheapened product of glue and glitz — for being careless of a 500 year heritage with devastating result.
1. Book buyers — those who want the ?convenience? and ?cost savings? of shopping in malls, over the quaint, the dusty, or the unique; who buy books according to price instead of content, and prefer what is popular over what is good — for creating a mass market of the cheap, the loud, and the shiny.
1. Writers — who sell their souls to be published, write what is already being written or choose the new for its own sake, opt to feed the demands of editors rather than do their own best work, place style over substance, and bear no standards — for boring their readers unto television.
1. Booksellers — who supply the artificial demand created by marketing departments for the short term gain, accept second class treatment from publishers, push what is ?hot? instead of developing the long term interest of the reader — for failing to promote quality of content and excellence in book making.
1. Government (local, state and federal) — which taxes commercial property to the maximum, driving out the smaller and marginal businesses which are both the seed of future enterprise and the tradition of the past, while giving tax breaks to chain stores, thus killing the personality of a city — for producing the burden of tax codes only accountants can love.
1. Librarians — once the guardians, who now watch over their budgets instead — for destroying books which would last centuries to find room for disks and tapes which disintegrate in a few years and require costly maintenance or replacement by equipment soon to be obsolete.
1. Book collectors — who have metamorphosed from book worms to moths attracted only to the bright; once the sentinels of a favorite author?s work, now mere speculators on the ephemeral product of celebrity — for putting books on the same level with beanie babies.
1. Teachers — assigning books because of topical appeal, or because of their own lazy familiarity, instead of choosing what is best; thus a tale about the teenage angst of a World War Two era prep school boy is pushed at students who do not know when World War Two took place — for failing to pass the torch of civilization to the next generation.
1. Editors — who have forgotten the editorial craft — for servicing the marketing department, pursuing fast results and name recognition over quality of content and offering authors the Faustian bargain of fame and fortune, while pleading their best intentions like goats.
1. Reviewers — for promoting what is being advertised, puffing the famous to gain attention, being petty and personal, and praising the obscure with priestly authority — all the while being paid by the word.
1. The Public — those who do not read books, or can not find the time; who live by the flickering light of the television, and will be the first to fear the darkening of civilization — for not caring about consequences.

Thus, we come to the twilight of the age of books; to the closing of the mind; to the pitiful end of the quest for knowledge–and stare into the cold abyss of night.

John Usher – From THE HOUND by John Usher, copyright 2004. Permission to reproduce is granted to all upon request with proper attribution.

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