Where Have All the Small Bookstores Gone?

As she remembers all the bookstores she's loved, she laments the loss of another small store.

by Carol Crismond • More.com Member { View Profile }
Photograph: iStock

Riding along Atlantic Boulevard in Atlantic Beach, Fla., I passed the Tappin Book Mine each day, and watched its gradual countdown to the store's final-sales signs. Bookstore closings always end on the last-and-final, 90-percent-off day. Today the handwritten sign in the window says, “Finis.”

For me, it is always with sadness and regret when I see the end of a bookstore that gave so many people a way of engaging in reading the written word and injecting a personal connection that every writer wishes for those who open their book. Opening in the ‘60s and remaining vigilant during the early invasion of the large, mega-bookstore during that decade, it is admirable this small bookstore was able to survive for five decades.

The progression of the mega-bookstore such as Barnes and Noble, Borders and the others that opened cross-country gave the reader a supermarket of books at a discounted price. Since the early ‘60s and for 20 years following, mega-bookstores took over the country like gladiators who marched across the land, leaving the predictable death and the “closing” signs on the small-town bookstores, victims of progress, in their wake. But the new gladiators have arrived and are stronger than the physical mega-bookstore because they harness the power of the Internet, the great warehouse of words and music. Rather than browse through a book, reviewing the table of contents, handling the book, reading the flap and the bio on the writer, the new way of the world is to order on-line. Even the mega-bookstore Borders has marched off to the land of the dinosaur, and Barnes and Noble is on its way to a similar destiny.

For me, genuine enjoyment of the experience of the small bookstore started many years ago when I realized reading a book that kept me mesmerized was sparked by the atmosphere where I made the discovery. Some women collect shoes; I buy books.

In particular, I remember a bookstore just outside of Chicago where I was living in the ‘60s. At least once a week I would bundle up to meet the elements, walk into town to visit and look for a new read. As an old soul, the attractiveness of this store was more than eye-catching and resembled old world Europe. When entering the room, your attention was immediately drawn to the two couches that were an overstuffed, Victorian style, featured pillows in brocade and faced each other in front of the fireplace.

On the right side of the store, near the entrance, there was a silver tea and coffee set with china and saucers and silver spoons. It sat on an antique table covered in lace. Double latte’s with 2 percent, and cappuccino chocolate’ had not yet arrived. The aroma of coffee filled the air as you entered. Just imagine serving your customers tea and coffee while they select the book to take home.

The ceilings were 12 feet and had hand-carved crown moldings and natural, solid-wood beams across the ceiling. Mahogany bookshelves lined the outer walls, and a ladder rolled down the aisle to reach the too-tall shelves. The owner was an elderly man who looked like he belonged to another time but also belonged in this place. The music was of course quietly streaming through the building — non-intrusive but definitely adding to the flavor of the moment the customer was experiencing. Years later, a neighbor informed me that it closed in the late ‘70s and was replaced by a Barnes and Noble at the mall. 

As a child growing up in the city in the ‘50s keeping busy after school until parents came home from work was the challenge. The choices were to go to the park and play handball or go to the library one block away and walk through the aisles with shelves too high to reach and sit on chairs where a child’s legs did not touch the floor. Because of my love of books, I chose the library more often than the park. The library across the street from my apartment building was two-story, brick, and had numerous selections of books. That building was the beginning of my journey.

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