The second Thursday of every month, Beyond the Margins teams up with compatriot literary blog Writer Unboxed and #IndieThursday to promote the value of independent bookstores and the struggles they face. Buy a book from an indie today!
I read with interest yesterday — the same day the Dept of Justice announced a settlement certain to lower the price of e-books, further insult to bookstore injury — that Saks Fifth Avenue has teamed up with Rizzoli bookstore. The boutique nook is part of its new “shops-within-a-shop” rehab of Saks’ ninth floor.
The highly stylized showroom is gorgeously spare, and will stock books on topics like fashion and design. It looks like the sort of space where Calvin Klein might perch on a sofa to read, or to mull which model he should feature against which bookshelf in his next ad campaign.
I’m don’t mean to be flippant. Just about anyplace offering new shelf space is a good thing in my book. But this reminds me of the many hoops booksellers are jumping through these days to survive. If book are being displayed in Saks this stylishly, it suggests they’re beginning to achieve a new kind of status — not necessarily higher or lower, but somewhere on that rarified plane that’s meant as a compliment but also implies, This isn’t a necessity for anyone, this is for the collector. This is for people who care about paper. Vinyl people, with liner notes.
It’s a bit like a museum gift shop. But really, it’s another face of the same innovation-slash-desperation that led Borders to hug Build-A-Bear, and led to the installation of print-on-demand machines at Cambridge’s Harvard Book Store and Washington D.C.’s Politics & Prose, and even the colorful girls’ rain boots and umbrellas filling the window space at my local indie, branching out with much more non-book merchandise since it was bought last year. (Which I appreciate, because it makes one-stop gift shopping that much easier — book plus tchotchke, done.)
What’s interesting about these new mashups is that nearly anything goes. Everyone is seeking whatever eclectic formula might hit that sweet-spot combo to succeed in keeping their bookstore in the black. Personally, I’ve long thought someone should be on the bookstore-laundromat and the bookshop-spa combinations. They could be the next generation of the bookstore-café, a brilliant mix to which I owe much.
When my family was relocated from Boston to Washington D.C. in 2004, I found a second home in the upper Northwest independent bookstore Politics & Prose. It was not far from our children’s preschool, and I’d spend mornings working on my magazine assignments in the basement cafe, trying to resist cracking open some new novel I’d bought upstairs.
It was there, furtively, that I started my own novel. I wasn’t supposed to be writing fiction. I’d be on deadline for some magazine article, with never enough babysitting hours. But sitting in that café, jazzed on caffeine and the psychic weight of all those books overhead, I was drawn to express something that had been haunting my imagination for some time: Two families, struggling and healing in the anxious year following the September 11th terrorist attacks. At that time I was somewhat adrift, still affected by the loss of a friend who’d been on Flight 11, and enormously pregnant with my third child in a city where we didn’t have family or close friends. It was another kind of uncertainty to be finding my bearings as a writer of fiction. Everything felt tenuous.
Bookstores have always been a way I connect to a community, and the hours spent there were some of my favorite times during our few years in Washington. Mornings passed in a blur creating my fictional families, and some evenings I’d slip away from my own family to attend author events at the store. In the rows of book-loving strangers in my adopted city, I felt as if I were among my people.
I’m not sure that’s as likely to happen in the Saks Rizzoli, but that’s okay. People who find books inspiring need places to be around them, and to be around other people who want to be around them. It doesn’t much matter whether there are washing machines spinning in the aisles or teddy bears waving from the end caps.
The cost of e-books might very well change everything eventually, and create a community of folks tapping their spineless screens in Starbucks. That could become the next generation of people who like to be around people liking books. But even teddy knows it’s not the same damn thing.