Bookstores and community

Allow me to make an introduction. This is Food For Thought Books. The storefront in the picture is not the one it had when I was a teen. No, back then it wasn’t street level. I’d go in up the stairs and come out in a room full of books and buttons and bumper stickers and tapes. I didn’t buy a lot back then, mostly browsed things that felt much cooler than I did, ran my fingers over buttons I didn’t feel brave enough to stick on my backpack, slipped in and out leaving little sign I’d been there.

But the buttons I didn’t wear, the books I didn’t buy, they still meant something to me. Every piece was a window I could look out of, a door I could tip open and imagine walking through.

When discussions come up about whether Amazon is the salvation of publishing or not, about the economics of bookselling and bookmaking and all the rest of it, this is what I think of: once upon a time I lived in a town with bookstores on every corner. I could go in one and find every classic I’d never heard of before, go in another and listen to the owner’s Libertarian rants, in another and lose myself amid stacks of used paperbacks where a dark haired man in glasses would approach me and ask if I was interested in a first edition Cheever, an invitation in his eyes.

Bookstores everywhere, catering to everyone, endless doorways and windows to peer through. Now? Food For Thought is one of two remaining. The others vanished with the rise of Amazon, with the Barnes and Noble store that opened in the strip mall one town over.

Yes, I can walk into Barnes and Noble and order anything I want. Better yet, I can stay home and order from Amazon, never having to talk to anyone. No one needs to know if I order books on raising indestructible cockroaches or DIY veal farming. The books come to me, and I can find anything I want.

What is lost? Community. Amazon reviews do not take the place of bumping shoulders with someone in a small bookstore and hearing about what they’re reading, about that book you never would have known existed had someone not held it out to you. Barnes and Noble cafes don’t take the place of a cozy children’s section where the college woman with the buzz cut stops your daughter to ask what she’s been reading and whether she likes it, and listens seriously to her answer. Local booksellers know their communities, know their local writers, have books they love and visions for the kinds of worlds books can shape.

I understand the reasons why the rise of online bookselling has been a boon to some writers. I understand why it has been wonderful for some readers, particularly those in small towns, those without access to quality library systems, those for whom community support is lacking and finding books online is key. I accept all those things, and still feel that brick and mortar independent bookstores provide something to their towns that cannot be replaced by chains and online shopping.

Which brings me back to Food For Thought. Thirty-seven years in business, and they are going under. They understand that a bookstore is more than books on a shelf. In their words, their role is to serve “as a bookstore full of books you can’t find anywhere else, as a community center for all manner of social justice and progressive communities, and as a safe space for those for who much of the world is still not a safe space.”

It may still be possible to save Food For Thought. Their Indiegogo campaign can be found here. I hope they succeed–for the community’s sake, for my own, for my daughter who harbors dreams of volunteering there. There’s an ebb and flow to all businesses, to all things, but I don’t believe it’s time for this bookstore to end. Good bookstores contain magic in the same way libraries do; may there be enough lingering to keep this one alive.

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