Thursday, June 11, 2009


I intended my first post to be about Samuel Taylor Coleridge. However, I write this piece less than two days after the announcements that Shaman Drum Bookshop in Ann Arbor, Michigan, & Conkey’s Bookstore in Appleton, Wisconsin, will be closing. What will we lose with the closing of these two stores? Are these simply two local businesses that have run their course, the former for 29 years & the latter for 113 years? What do bookstores provide to a community? Is it merely an array of products that we can get somewhere else?

We lose a lot more than a local business when a bookstore closes. It is a cultural nexus, where people & books come together in an intimate way. The community which it serves feels this loss most acutely. However, we are all poorer culturally since none of us live in isolation. To paraphrase Paul Kozlowski, we are diminished. Books & bookstores are key components in connecting a community together with itself & with the broader world beyond the city, state, & national borders. They are places where ideas & stories can be discovered in a way that cannot be replicated online, in a classroom, or even in a library. They are places where you can interact with other people face to face - staff, other customers, or authors – to exchange ideas or simply recommendations. When it comes to books they offer, they provide a curatorial function, as Alana Wilcox of Coach House Books has put it. They do this most effectively because they are the only ones that have direct relationships with both the publishers & the community.

I recognize that this is not the entire picture. There are many volatile issues in play in the realm of books these days. Some were touched on by Karl Pohrt & his staff at Shaman Drum yesterday when they were interviewed on local Ann Arbor radio. Karl Pohrt believes that the model for running a new bookstore that has been around for decades does not work any more. It is broken. LaTissia Mitchell was confident that we should not fear the new technologies, & that knowledge & stories can still be transmitted effectively by new platforms. While not entirely disagreeing with her, Karl wondered if we even understand what happens neurologically when we read a book, & asked how that will change when we are reading digitally. Regarding the function of connecting books with the community, Karl will continue to do this through the Great Lakes Literary Arts Center.

What these closures symbolize more than anything though is the retreat of books from everyday life. From bookstores disappearing from shopping malls to colleges & universities ceding their campus stores to third party operators promising a guaranteed return, which is then provided by licensed merchandise, not books. From disappearing reference books in homes to schools & colleges adopting e-readers in lieu of textbooks. From museums of all kinds drastically reducing, & even eliminating, book sections to libraries deaccessioning more & more books while adding more & more computer terminals. From the weakening of the chains to the ongoing demise of independent scholarly & Main Street carriage trade shops. Added to this is the threat to the physical book itself by the increasing interest & use of e-books. There will be no serendipitous encounters with books when they are all electronic. There will be no friend, teacher, librarian, or bookseller putting a book into your hand & saying, "You have to read this."

My apologies for having strayed a bit here & there. I do hope to engage some of these topics further, & others related, in future posts.


  1. There's a shop here in Portland, The Looking Glass Bookstore, that's struggling. The front of the store is a shiny red caboose. The owners dog hangs out there. My kids love visiting and I do too. I appreciate the store because the owner is a lovely person, whom I've gotten to know (last time I was there, she took me to her office to show me photos her daughter's had emailed of her baby goats) and she has great tastes in books. As a curator of books, I trust her more than Amazon's "You might also consider" functionality, which seems more based on statistical analysis than human judgement, and, in my experience, fails to show me books I actually like.

  2. I think when shops like these close there is an opportunity for the community to still be there.
    There was a great (I am told) shop for buying knitting supplies in town. It was a great place to ask for help with knitting, advice on threads and whatever else someone would want to know about. It has recently closed, not due to poor sales actually, but the people in that knitting community are taking it upon themselves to stick together and meet up once a month. Although this is not the same experience and is less permanent, there is still a place for this sort of group to grow and interact. It is also more flexible now, and cheaper(lets be honest, money comes into this somewhere).
    So, as sad as it is to see small business close for whatever reason I feel there is always an opportunity for people to get the same experience out of the resources they have.