Sunday, February 7, 2010

Three Cheers for Good Independent Bookstores!

Recently, as I was setting up my “Great American Book Tour” itinerary for Walking to Gatlinburg, a bookseller asked me to define “a good independent bookstore.” I’d like to share my reply with my blog readers and fellow fans of indie bookstores everywhere:

In response to your inquiry, I believe that a good independent bookstore always puts good books and good customers ahead of the bottom line. Interestingly, by doing so, passionately and knowledgeably, many (though, sadly, not all) independent bookstores have managed to stay in business in this economically depressed era when even chain stores are suffering.

Of course, one of the reasons that chain bookstores are having their own difficulties is that many of them do not place a top priority on books and customers. In fairness, though, I have to say that, from time to time, in chain stores, I meet very independent booksellers who love books and respect customers and like to match them up.

Good independent bookstores – like Tolstoy’s families – are all different. But they are very happy places. When I walk into one, the colorful jackets of books that are my old friends or may become new friends excite me the way walking out of the dim concourse of a major league baseball stadium onto the bright, geometrical familiarity of the diamond below excites me.

Good independent bookstores are always welcoming. Customers are invited to browse. Booksellers make time to talk about – books! Go into any university English department at the end of the day. All you hear is people grousing about poor students, parking restrictions, pay freezes. Booksellers should be so lucky. Still, they’re as enthusiastic about Elizabeth Gilbert’s Committed and the new Raymond Carver collection at the end of the day as at 10 a.m. They just plain love books.

And there’s something else about independent bookstores. Something important. They keep writers like me, and hundreds of others, going. They don’t overload their stock with just the best sellers. Most of my favorite writers – Richard Russo, Chris Bohjalian, Annie Proulx, Richard Ford, Ivan Doig – got their start in independent bookstores. What’s more, by championing freedom of speech, our constitutional right to privacy, and freedom of the press, the indies help preserve America’s precious political and cultural heritage.

Thank you, independent booksellers!

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