Thursday, April 10, 2008

More bookselling stuff

I must say, a fine first post from Christopher! He may also do some live blogging from the London Book Fair, so mark your calendars. That should be fun reporting, folks.

To take off of his post on bookselling (though of the antiquarian variety), I wanted to link this piece from a few weeks ago, a post on bookseller Arsen Kashkashian's blog, Kash's Book Corner. It's a fine place to visit. But this post in particular had resonance to me as it was about the Bookstop in Houston, in the art-deco Alabama Theater. As I started reading this entry, I realized that this place was my first big bookstore, too.

I drove into Houston from a suburb about 40 minutes northeast, where we relied on the local library for books and sometimes wandered into the B. Dalton in the mall for a gift for someone else, or perhaps some self-help or how-to. As I got into high school in 1990, I wanted a bookstore culture of some kind, and in retrospect, I think this is when the chains started their real push. So my mother and I drove into Houston one day, because I read about this Bookstop.

And it was the real deal, just as Kash describes it. The magazine rack alone was staggering. The rows of books were endless, like the library, and similarly, you could just stand and pull books, one after the other, off the shelf, reading the jackets and the first few pages. I went through the fiction, the history, psychology, literary criticism, religion... After only knowing the fluorescent glow of the mall stores, with a dozen short aisles and an emphasis on the most commercial of titles, this store was quite a revelation.

Soon they opened a Bookstop in a shopping center near the mall that replicated this style, though to a lesser degree. This was Humble, Texas, people, known to some as Scumble, so that Bookstop in the shopping center was a bit of a lifeline. (I believe I have written about looking up a used bookstore in the yellow pages, and driving to Humble's old downtown to find this shop. It was piles of dusty romance novels. I was so bummed.) There was no cafe at this Bookstop so no reason to hang out as long as you might these days, but you could feel somewhat anonymous as you perused any number of topics. There was a bookish smell. There was Buddhism and Beats and mopey poetry and photography books with naked people and environmental magazines and feminist manifestos. It was pretty awesome in 1992 or thereabouts.

This is always the struggle, though. Bookstop was bought out by Barnes & Noble, after spreading as a Texas and Florida chain (according to Kash - I didn't realize). But it brought the book world to me. It wasn't a funky independent - would that it were! There was not a real book culture in Scumble then, just highway and quiet old ladies selling fading softcore porn books across the street from the town's oil derrick.

But now I can't stand these chains, as they've turned into beasts, consuming markets where there were indies. Should we celebrate the chains for spreading a book culture or demonize them for killing it? It's the Oprah question, and I for one would like an answer.


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