Bookstores now and then

June 17, 2015

For those of us who love physical bookshops, the last ten years have been a time of almost continual loss. This thought struck me as I read Adam Gopnik’s touching New Yorker tribute to the now-departed La Hune bookstore in Paris (“When a bookstore closes, an argument ends”, June 12, 2015).

Gopnik notes that the “forces that brought La Hune down are, sadly and predictably, the same forces that destroyed” other bookstores, “the ruthless depredations of the Internet … alongside the transformation upward (or is it downward?) of the inner cores of big cities into tar pits for a mono-culture of luxury.” And yes, a Dior now stands where La Hune once stood.

Gopnik describes his reaction to the bookstore’s closing as:

Something that it would be indecent to call grief but inadequate to call sadness. At a minor level, once a bookstore is gone we lose the particular opportunities for adjacency it offers, determined by something other than an algorithm. It is rarely the book you came to seek, but the book next to that book, which changes your mind and heart.

It is a deep sadness that I have shared too frequently.  To this day whenever I enter a bookshop – especially if it is filled with quality selections carefully displayed – I am filled with, while not quite pure joy, something much more than simple happiness.  Thus the loss of a favoured bookshop can be profound.

My first bookshop – the long-departed “Titles Unlimited”, located at 409 Raritan Avenue, Highland Park, New Jersey (near the Fourth Avenue intersection), opened in 1966 – a great year for me, as my book-buying habits were just starting. It was the first of a chain of six under that same name in New Jersey; the original Titles Unlimited had started in New York City’s Union Square in 1961 by the founders, the Keusches, who sold out in 1988.

I recall reading almost the whole of Jack Kerouac’s On The Road while standing in its aisles, and it became my favourite stopping-off place on my walk back from high school to home.

I have loved and lost many bookstores since then. I particularly mourn the passing of Cody’s Books in Berkeley, California. Shockingly, it had just closed when I visited Berkeley in October 2008 on my way back to Australia. Over the course of two days in Berkeley, I looked in vain for a quality bookshop. How could it be? How could one of the great universities of the world (where I had studied for two years) not have a good bookstore?

It has not been my only loss. My first visit to a Borders bookstore was in East Brunswick, New Jersey with my mother (who knew that I would like it), on one of my visits back to the USA. Thrillingly, Borders then came to Australia, building their large stores seemingly everywhere: I frequented Borders here in Sydney at the Pitt Street Mall store in downtown, the Hornsby Westfield shopping centre, the Chatswood Westfield shopping centre and the Macquarie shopping centre. The particular wonder of Borders was that it actually smelled like an American bookstore, possibly because they brought in so many US-published books (or perhaps they bottled it?). I didn’t think it would last: Borders had over-built, at least here in Australia, and had a haphazard stocking policy, with loads of books that I suspected that few people would purchase. They closed in Australia in July 2011, and two months later in the USA.

I didn’t mourn Borders in the same way, but I still miss it, particularly how it allowed me to pursue my two loves – books and movies – in the same shopping centre.

I have worked in two bookshops. For six months in the 1970s I worked in the B. Dalton on Boylston Street in downtown Boston, primarily in the receiving/shipping room. It was a generalist shop, with a staff of no-one over 24 except for the manager. Our biggest claim to fame was that John Updike, who lived not far away on Beacon Hill, occasionally came in to purchase mostly remainders. At its peak, the B. Dalton was the second largest chain in the USA, however almost all stores had closed by early 2010.

I later managed a bookshop in Adelaide, Australia, not long after my arrival – one that had been a famous “Becks” bookshop prior to falling on hard times. It also disappeared, and last I checked was a women’s clothing shop.

Despite the ongoing loss of bookshops, I still feel blessed, living here in Sydney. My favourite bookstore is “Books Kinokuniya”, the only Australian outpost of a small Japanese chain, one that bills itself as the largest bookstore in Australia. It has quality, quantity, a great location (right near Town Hall in downtown Sydney), a professional staff and moderate discounting. Not the best website, but a fabulous selection, including academic-style books. My close to “equal favourite” is Abbeys Books, located on York Street, not far away. By comparison with the mega-stores, it’s small, but maintains consistent quality, and an almost uncanny ability to have in stock what I am seeking. Good staff, easy ordering, a passable website and a real commitment to quality.

But these are not the only Sydney bookstores worth seeking out. Downtown also houses the venerable Dymocks main store on George Street, which has operated continuously in this location for a long time and has an excellent selection. It’s not nearly as intellectual or literary as Kinokuniya or Abbeys, but has a strong kids section (including good games) and – a guilty pleasure – a fabulous connected high-quality stationery store with unique items unavailable anywhere else. Also on my list are Gleebooks in Glebe – intellectual, quirky and endlessly stimulating; and Better Read Than Dead in Newtown, a place that I have only begun to discover and that reflects its hip, intellectual clientele.

Further afield, Sydney’s north shore, where I live, may not be a cultural mecca like south of the Harbour, but includes a number of places that have filled me with joy over the years: Constant Reader in Crows Nest, the Lindfield Bookshop (with its responsive ordering service) and The Book Review in St Ives. Also worthy of note – out of my weekly path, but enriching my book experience – are Gertrude and Alice in Bondi Beach, Ariel Books in Paddington and Berkelouw Books, which has expanded from its historic Southern Highlands used bookstore to Paddington and now to a number of other small suburban shops, filling in the gaps left by other closures.

And then there’s Amazon, worthy of an extended meditation in its own right. It has the best website bar none, although the recent decline in the Australian dollar and Amazon’s high shipping costs to Australia have reduced its competitiveness significantly. Oh yes, did I forget to mention? – Last I heard Amazon was still the biggest bookseller to Australians. The Book Depository is cheaper for us, but its website far inferior. Gopnik has a cute observation about Amazon:

Anyway (the more impatient counter argument goes on), a bookstore is only a platform for the purchase of literature, and platforms move and change with every new age, gathering and then shedding the moss of our memories as they roll on. Someday, someone will be writing a nostalgic account of one-click shopping on Amazon.

Perhaps.