I feel like I am going through something like a long phase of mourning for bookstores. Maybe it’s because I live in the country now, but I find myself connecting to inanimate objects and concepts in oddly human forms of intimacy. Like my cello (I’ve read people gravitate toward the cello because its range of pitch is approximately the range of a human voice, and its proportions and size strangely like that of another human being), with which I occasionally have the strange sense that I am falling in love. I really do, this lifting in the heart, this weakness for this beauty, almost compassion. It makes me feel like I am in a 21st-century short story, flirting with realism and then heading off into a world where after a long winter in the country a young woman falls in love with her cello. But when I am not stealing glances at its shining form from across the room, I am bent over my desk reading bad news about bookstores, and feeling something very much like bereavement.
I think I can literally say bookstores are one of the things I love most in the world. Opening the door of a bookstore feels like physically walking into good news. (Which is why coupling them with such ever-worse-news headlines is so upsetting.) Because I’m from a little town, where there was only a tiny and disappointing mall bookstore stocked with bestsellers (and a sad little shelf called, vaguely, “Classics,” which I read from exclusively, especially during that strange post-YA stage where you don’t know what to read because you don’t yet feel quite interested in the world of adults and besides which no one told you what to read there), a presumably underfunded library I loved but that it was possible to finish reading and didn’t seem to have been restocked since the early 1960s, and a completely incredible place by the bridge that was called, implausibly, “The Rainbow Fish and Natural Foods Children’s Bookstore,” and somehow crammed into a teeny space a counter filled with ice and fish, a rack of homeopathic medicines and one shelf of out-of-print YA British fantasy literature…where was I. Because of that, once a year, my father would take me to the Book Room, the oldest bookstore in Halifax, where he’d lead me to the back of the store to a tiny man at a big desk in front of shelves and shelves of boxes and books. My father would tell me that man could get me any book in the world if I only told him its name. Obviously that detail is now preposterously antiquated and renders me (and, I’m afraid, that little man) hopelessly obsolete, post-internet. But it was like the room spun, the floor opened up, a world began. It felt like nothing less than magic. To be able to read anything anyone anywhere had written. And be just a dorky kid from a tiny little town.
By nature, I’m stupidly optimistic. I feel cornered into cynicism of late, and I don’t like it. But I feel this small core of anger, disappointment, incredulity hardening in me. I can’t believe, genuinely disbelieve it for whole moments some days, that I am living in a time when bookstores are disappearing. I know there are advantages to e-books, internet, accessibility, yadda yadda yadda. I know this is not interesting or new, to mourn the passing or diminishing of ink and pages. But I can’t measure up to the beautiful essays you all are sharing here on our website, and so just to keep myself from being intimidated, I just bring this up the way we’d talk about things over one of our amazing Montreal dinners. I feel deeply sad. I want to talk myself out of it, sometimes. And sometimes I think it just has to be what it is. So I grieve for bookstores.
A couple years ago, the Book Room, a 169-year-old store, literally older than the country, closed. The final straw for the owner, in an event later recalled in a heartbreaking New Yorker cover, was when a delivery for a tenant who lived on the floor above was mistakenly delivered to them. It was an amazon package containing a book they carried in the store.
Anyway, France, through canny regulation, is not losing its bookstores. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to learn from them.