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.
Several weeks ago I moved about 35 miles north to another small beach town proudly known for the local shrimping fleet. The town itself is reminiscent of all that is a quaint, Southern village with bistros, boutiques, antique shops, seafood restaurants and a saloon that boasts of its late 1800s origination. The library was the focus of the upcoming town, and I can attest to the validity of the town’s recommendation to upgrade and maintain the library. Ironically, in the local newspaper the following week, despite the decision to move forward, a local resident objected to money being spent on the building. The suggestion was to tear down the brick building and replace it with a couple of modular buildings. I gasped, holding my hand close to my heart. It was beating so fast. Besides, loving books and those who are the keepers of them, I also feel a deep desire to maintain the history of what was and is. Must we give up everything — the words, the books — and replace the structures with modular structures or trailers?
Today, instead of walking into a bookstore, you can just go on to Internet and order it. You can also read a book with a small electronic tablet in hand turning the page with your index finger. Digital has taken over, and now, rather than reading words, the reader can listen to an audiotape too. As a child I believed that when an author writes words that become published and bound in a book, it meant permanency. As all of us pass through life, the one thing I feel you could count on was that the writers (infamous or not so) have the words permanently placed on bookshelves in stores and libraries forever.
In the next decade, it is easy to see the consequences of progress — books located on electronic tablets, patrons of libraries checking out tablets, and bookshelves becoming a memory. Tables and chairs strategically placed in classroom order in the library provide space for your rental tablet, which allows you to browse the digital shelves and find the book you want to read on your electronic device. Eventually, bookstores in general will be history and possibly even the library. Just as the inventions of the past took their place as a lesson in history, the steady progression of development will determine how we enjoy the written word, and that will be determined by the strongest gladiator of them all —progress. In 10 years, our grandchildren will look up at us and ask “Grandma, Grandpa, what is a book store or a li…library?”
I’d like to share a note of thanks to all of the small-bookstore owners who have come and gone, here and everywhere. Surely millions will miss you. Bravo for investing your time and life in giving us the books that chartered our life courses, taught us how to do almost anything, and inspired us beyond words. Those who remain open despite the ongoing hurdles are applauded for living your own succession plan and fighting the inevitable until the final day before closing the doors. A round of applause to the town councils and “friends of the library,” who carry the torch for maintaining our history and fighting to preserve it. Accolades to all!