Thursday, August 19, 2010


I have to say, for all of my admittedly left-of-center, countercultural/yuppie inclinations, I don't have much sympathy for the Cult of the Independent Bookstore. Do I find the selection at your average Waldenbooks or Borders stifling? Sure, but I think that's as much a function of size as corporateness: I generally find the selection at comparably-sized indie bookstores just as stifling. Stifling in a different way, certainly - you can find titles at the indie that you can't at the Borders - but I've never thought the selection at indies was any broader a slice of the publishing spectrum - just centered at a different point on the spectrum.

Let me put it another way. Nine times out of ten when I'm searching for a specific title, as opposed to just browsing, it's either a translation from a Japanese author or it's something old and unfashionable. Or, it's an academic book. Either way, I'm unlikely to find it in a bricks-and-mortar store, and that's true whether the stocking decisions are being made by a corporate suit who doesn't even read books or by a conscientious hipster who still, chances are, hasn't heard of Wahei Tatematsu and doesn't care to invest in keeping a copy of Guy Mannering on the shelf.

Case in point: when we went to San Francisco, I stumbled across City Lights. I don't know why I'd forgotten to put it on my must-see list, sometime Beat enthusiast as I am (hey, I read The Portable Jack Kerouac cover to cover! I read every word of Naked Lunch!), but I did, so I was happy to literally discover it on a walk to see Chinatown. And of course I spent an hour or so browsing, looking for the right book to buy. A beat author, even one of City Lights' own, would have been too obvious, and I've been reading more haikai in translation lately, so I thought I'd try to replace the Issa book that I lost on the bus last fall... No dice. For all of San Francisco's East Asian orientation, for all of the Beat movement's Japan fixation, they had almost no haiku. Some of Rexroth's translations, and that was about it. Well, what did I expect? It's a storied bookstore, but not that large.

I'm neither bragging nor, really, complaining. I recognize that I have somewhat specialized needs in books, and that nobody could make a living satisfying them, at least not and pay rent on a shop.

This is why I've been right at home in the internet-commerce era: I can actually get a copy of Cecilia Seigle's Yoshiwara if I want to. I know that Amazon is killing bricks-and-mortar bookstores, but I can't mourn the loss, because, really, they never did much for me...

Same goes, mutatis mutandem, for record stores. I can appreciate the cool factor of indie record stores, but how many of them carry the full Yazoo catalog?

Anyway, I've felt this way for many years, and I think I still feel this way, but I've been forced to make one whopping exception: used bookstores. Like, Powell's, dude. Powell's. It's worth a trip to Portland all on its own. That City of Books really is all that.

I've been lucky enough to live in a lot of places with good used bookstores. The three years I lived in Provo, I was a few blocks away from Pioneer Books; I haven't been to their new location, but their old one was a marvel, a nondescript strip-mall storefront that kept going back and back and back through room after room of tottering piles of books, each room darker and danker and richer than the last, each room connected with a narrower, skeevier-looking passage than the last. Salt Lake, for that matter, has one of my favorite used bookstores: Sam Weller's. This one, too, is fun because the path through the stacks takes odd turns and feels like a labyrinth.

St. Louis had some good ones, and Tokyo - well, Japan is so book-happy that it makes even Powell's look like a 7-11 magazine rack. In fact the only city I've lived in as an adult that disappointed me for used books was Cambridge/Somerville. I went to Harvard expecting to find used-book nirvana. And there are a couple of used-book places in Harvard Square - the basement of the Harvard Book Store (not to be confused with the university bookstore, the Coop - which is run by Barnes & Noble) is where I went most, but it was just half of a basement, really. Used to go to McIntyre & Moore in Davis Square, but found them overpriced and understocked. I always wondered if there was some secret book haven north of the Charles that I was missing, and maybe there was (but if so, don't tell me about it: I don't think I want to know what I missed, now that I've left).

Eugene even has what I need: Smith Family. In fact discovering this place, a couple of blocks from the University, was something of an epiphany for me. If you've wondered (and why would you) why I've been blogging almost exclusively about English-language books for the past year or so, it's because I've been taking immense pleasure in wandering into Smith Family and finding good, awesome, intriguing, tantalizing books and walking out with them. Needless to say their selection of Japanese-language books is quite small (but they do have some, which is amazing enough; but then, so did Pioneer), so the books I walk out with have been in English.

I've been surprised at how important this experience has become for me, of every couple of weeks popping back into Smith Family to plan some more heavy reading. Maybe it's time for me to reassess my dismissal of bricks-and-mortar bookstores. When I'm looking for a specific title, especially a scholarly one, I'll still usually end up having to get it on Amazon - but there is a very real pleasure in going to a place full of books, overspilling the shelves and begging for a home, and just being there for a while.

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