Only the Lonely: Brick-and-Mortar Bookstores in a Vanishing World

I am a collector of bookstores.  When vacationing, I like to seek out a new or used bookstore in town, to support local business, to add to the growing collection of books by my bedside, and to discover what sets it apart from others. I can sometimes remember years later that I acquired a book at a particular place, because the store struck me in such a way, or because the book is topically tied into the place where I bought it. One thing I’ve begun to collect from these stores is T-shirts. The collection includes Powell’s in Portland, OR; Third Places Books and Elliott Bay Book Shop (both in Seattle, WA); Tattered Cover in Denver, CO; Politics & Prose in Washington, DC; Strand Bookstore in New York, NY; Malaprop’s Bookstore in Asheville, NC; City Lights Books in San Francisco, CA; Square Books in Oxford, MS; and McKay Used Books in Chattanooga, TN.

Elliott Bay Books: An impromptu shot of members of the pacific Northwest Ballet by photographer Jordan Matter.

Elliott Bay Books: An impromptu shot of members of the Pacific Northwest Ballet by photographer Jordan Matter.

Each of these shirts, different from the others, perhaps indicates something about its respective home, also varying in size, ambiance, and specialty. None of these stores are tiny; though several have inventories you can see in your time spent there. A few of them are multi-story buildings where you could spend several days browsing. Some provide baskets or rolling carts at their entrances in anticipation of you purchasing a small rafts’ worth of reading material. While stores like Elliott Bay are full of windows and sunlight, others, including Powell’s, eschew natural light in deference to why everyone is really there. At New York’s Strand Book Store, everyone moves around almost like the characters in Allen Ginsberg’s poem Howl, “…looking for an angry fix, angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection…” Howl, of course, was published by City Lights Press, an arm of Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s City Lights Books in San Francisco’s South Beach. City Lights Books is three floors, but with winding staircases and creaky wooden floorboards, so different from Powell’s more industrial warehouse feel across its multiple levels.

Some of the shirts feature quotes or sentiments. Elliott Bay’s shirt reads, “So Many Books. So Little Time.” Square Books shirt quotes Faulkner, Oxford’s own, with “I only write when inspiration strikes. Fortunately it strikes at nine every morning.” And Politics & Prose’s shirt, perhaps in a more self-deprecating mood necessary when navigating across the aisle of the swamp of DC politics, says,

“Outside of a dog a book is a man’s best friend. Inside of a dog it’s too dark to read.” –Grouch Marx.

Most of the shirts also show the store’s logo. City Lights, Powell’s, and the Strand have shirts which essentially display the store’s logo and nothing else, since the Strand and City Lights have particularly widely known and recognizable “brands.” Third Place, so named for a sociological concept of people needing a “third place” besides home and work in which to come together to socialize, to converse, to interact, has images across the front of its shirt: a coffee cup and several stacks of books. McKay’s, the only store listed here which is used books only, has a large sale price tag silk screened on its front.

Aside from the discussion we could certainly have on commercialism and what it means for bookstores to be seen as brands, all these stores are independent and represent something vital to their various communities. I was in Los Angeles this past weekend where I lived for nine years. One of those years was spent living in the Los Feliz neighborhood, just down from Griffith Park and the Hollywood sign. Los Feliz’s neighborhood bookstore is Skylight Books, a small one-story open store with much to offer in terms of character. The store’s politics are unabashedly liberal, with one section essentially offering a selection of anarchist tomes. An early LGBT advocate, the store maintains a section both on sexuality and gender, and on erotica. And for a small store, they have a broad selection of literary journals for sale. What they don’t have however, are store T-shirts. If you want a shirt that looks like a stamped library check out card, they’ve got it. If you want a shirt with Edgar Allan Poe’s cameo portrait, you can find it here. Need a shirt with the original cover of Slaughterhouse-Five? You’re in business. But sadly, you cannot walk around in a shirt proudly announcing you shopped at Skylight Books.

Just before I moved, a bookstore called The Last Bookstore opened in downtown Los Angeles. I didn’t have time to visit there as well, though they do seem to have shirts. The home page of their website reads, “The Last Bookstore. What are you waiting for? We won’t be here forever.” They are unabashedly echoing a sentiment I think many bookstore owners and booksellers feel. ‘Do people still buy books? Even with so many Kindles?’ is a question I am asked often when people find out I work at one of Atlanta’s own independents, Tall Tales Book Shop. And, no, we don’t offer shirts either.

Part of what people like about places like Starbucks, I think, is that what your order will taste the same regardless of location. There is comfort in that familiarity. Chain bookstores like Barnes & Noble offer that as well. But what I love about each of these bookstores, and the shirts that remind me of them when I wear one, are their differences, the small marks that distinguish them from one another.

What is your favorite indie bookstore and why?

6 thoughts on “Only the Lonely: Brick-and-Mortar Bookstores in a Vanishing World

  1. Rather than mention current book stores, I’m going to take a trip down memory lane to remind Atlanta readers of the lost and lamented Ansley Mall Bookstore, which had a selection as good as a library with books creeping down to the floor and along the aisles. Customers would sit cross legged in corners hoping not to be stepped on as they poured through books.

    This independent bookstore went the way of so many others. Thanks for sharing the names of the great ones remaining. Let’s hope “The Last Bookstore” remains tongue in cheek.

  2. First—I apologize for always being the first one to comment—what can I say—I wait for these posts—and I love this one, being a fellow bookstore collector. Of those you mentioned, I’ve been to Powell’s, Tattered Cover, and City Lights—and the fabled Tall Tales of Atlanta, of course. Thanks to another RU blogpost by Susan D, I knew to not miss Shakespeare and Co when in Paris last fall.
    Another fave of mine has been E. Shavers in Savannah—is it still there? Will seek out the others you’ve mentioned in upcoming travels. So when will Tall Tales have a t-shirt. Or a coffee mug?

  3. My constant favorite would have to be where Jess and I both work–
    Tall Tales Books in Atlanta. Have worked there for almost 19 (!)
    years with continuing pleasure. Have to say re Deb’s remarks that
    the Shakespeare & Co in Paris is certainly the most unique bookstore
    I’ve ever visited–the history, the nooks and crannies, the worn stairs,
    and books just everywhere you look. I love visiting bookstores, too,
    Jess–how is it possible to choose just one? Impossible for me. Love
    them ALL!!

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