Thursday, May 2, 2013

Book Stores

The news first arrived as an email, asking for help. The Book House, a fixture in our local community for more than 30 years, had been notified that its building was to be torn down.

The building is an 1863 farmhouse. It’s to be torn down with nearby structures to provide the space needed for a storage facility.

The officials in the neighboring community where The Book House is located are not known for their devotion to history or historical legacy. An old 19th century stone church recently stood in the way of a new gas station. A win-win scenario was created – the gas station developer removed the church (stone by stone) for it to be rebuilt at a winery in a rural area. Instead, the bricks were unceremoniously dumped on the property and pillaged by people looking for stones for paving, their gardens, and who knows what else. The church is gone forever.

The new developer says he’s trying to work with The Book House, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. The municipality calls the bookstore an institution. Well, so was the church.

I have a strong personal connection to this particular book store. I’ve been a regular customer since 1986. And it’s the location of the poetry alcove I wrote about for Tweetspeak Poetry.

The book House is notable for another reason than the old building it resides in. In a time where small bookstores are rapidly disappearing, even used bookstores, The Book House has not only survived but has managed to hold its own against the chain stores and even Amazon.

It’s a used bookstore that expanded into new books that expanded into selling books online. On the premises are 200,000 books. In the warehouse are another 80,000 books. Available online are yet another 80,000 books.

Barnes and Noble is ailing, and the prognosis doesn’t look good. In St. Louis, Borders is gone. The Kirkwood Bookstore is long gone. So is Pudd’n’Head Books, Successful Life bookstore, One Way Bookstore, Paul’s Books, The Library Ltd., Brentano’s, B. Dalton’s, Waldenbooks, and several used bookstores. We’re down to Barnes and Noble, a few small bookshops, and Wal-Mart/Sam’s Club.

I’m partially responsible for this state of affairs. Most of the books I buy today are from Amazon. I’m not attracted by the price. I am attracted by the convenience and the huge selection that is likely to have anything I am looking for. Those are the benefits. (I pay a use tax on internet purchases, so there’s no tax benefit involved here.)

There’s also a cost. To buy a book on Amazon is to miss the smell and feel of a bookstore, the chance discovery of a new book by an author you love, or to be captured by a new title or an old one. When I was in Barnes and Noble recently, looking for a gift, I walked out with the gift, but I also walked out with new books by Jaroslav Pelikan and Peter Ackroyd that I didn’t know had been published. I just happened to see the books in the “new history titles” shelf. Despite knowing my purchase history, Amazon would not have recommended these books when I came to the site.

The book publishing business is staying in upheaval. We’ve all been waiting for it to finally calm down, but that’s not likely to happen. The industry is going to stay in upheaval, largely thanks to technology. Many bookstores will not be able to survive, but others (like the Book House) will be able to figure out how to find a way to compete. Amazon has set its sites on the publishing part of the industry, and where that will lead is anyone’s guess.

In the meantime, The Book House in its small iconic building will likely have to look for a new home – or perhaps a new lot, if the developer is sincere about paying the building’s moving costs. The shop probably couldn’t sustain the moving costs and still remain profitable.

The developer has the right to do what he wants with his property. But a storage facility? Sheesh. 

There is an online petition asking the municipality to stop. I signed it. We spend a lot of money at restuarants there.

The bookstore has been given its 90-day eviction notice.

Photograph: The Book House. The gabled area above the porch is the poetry alcove.


Jessica M said...

How sad. :( Yeah, convenience and oftentimes pricing is too much competition for such venues to keep up with. But we are losing a lot of history and nostalgia when places like that close.

My first time here..Looking forward to reading more of your posts. If you have the inclination I'd love your thoughts on my latest post:

Crystal said...

Oh this is so sad! I hate to see small businesses not make it anyway - and knowing that they are being pushed out makes it even worse. I have no connection to your city, but I am going to sign this petition ... because if I ever DO go there, I want to be able to check out the bookstore. What an amazing amount of history is in that little farmhouse - and should remain there. A storage facility? Really? That's just sad...

Maureen said...

I used to prize Borders for its knowledgeable staff and wonderful selection of art books; in its last years, it was clear it had lost its way and thus its demise was not unexpected, though it disheartened me. We still have B&N, but I find its selections, even in-store, to be too sparse. It has refashioned large sections of its stores here to Nooks and book-related merchandise. The in-store poetry section is particularly poor. We still have a few holdouts, Politics & Prose the primary one and Kramerbooks, which also operates a restaurant in the back. One thing that saddens me about the demise of the brick-and-mortar shops is that children don't have the chance to explore the way my son did, to discover the way you mention you still do. I don't see many children in the B&N stores.