Wednesday, March 31, 2010

In Answer to Your Question

"So, you must be glad to see the Elliot Bay Book Company closing."

Where to start? Well, no, to all that. In the first place, they aren't. The Elliot Bay Book Co., after the better part of four decades a fixture in the historic Pioneer Square neighborhood in downtown Seattle, isn't going out of business. If you haven't heard, the bookstore is moving to a new location, in Capitol Hill. The last day at the old store was, indeed, today, but they will reopen in April at the new location. Anyone reading even just the headline in the newspaper today, really ought to know at least this much, though it could be allowed the Seattle Times only made this clear under the fold. So, for the sake of argument, let's assume, as I did today, that the gentleman asking me this question in the bookstore where I work is not from here, and did not actually read the newspaper story -- everyone says that so few people do nowadays. (The story, such as it was, was really more of a caption, come to that, for the large, lovely, color, photograph.) Allowable that a stranger shopping today in a different Seattle bookstore might not have heard the good news. Let that pass. Even the assumption that anyone employed in an independent bookstore would be "glad to see" any other independent bookstore closing -- have I mentioned? they aren't -- such an assumption just might be forgivable, I suppose, somewhere else. There may well be a bookseller somewhere willing to say so, or there might once have been; when most bookstores in The United States were, one way and another, independent, and competing just amongst themselves -- if that was ever entirely true. There may well have been a time, before my time, when few bookstores were owned by multinational entertainment corporations, no bookstore had to compete with publicly traded "online retailers," and the biggest threat to the established trade was, say, the slightly disreputable, and very profitable innovation of paperback books being sold in drugstores. (I think it worth mentioning just that last because it is actually impossible to read any history related to bookstores, or books for that matter, without acknowledging sensible people seldom have anything to do with the business of books. Those that do, and all those who ever did, have always bemoaned the sorry state and dire future of their fortunes. I suspect that Johannes Guttenberg went home to his wife each night a bankrupt and spent the next morning begging his creditors for better terms.) So maybe, back in the day, Mr. Mudie did indeed toast the demise of a competitor with a large brandy.

I think the gentleman's misapprehension today might have come from being himself a proper capitalist. I don't mean to make accusations. For all I know, as I did not see the titles of the books he was buying, he might be a quaintly embittered old Marxist, bating the lackey in an apron, and making some obscure jest on the scientifically inevitable consequences of wage-slavery, and the equally inevitable, and tragically short-sighted ethical coarsening of those poor proletarians like me, trapped in a "service industry." Don't think so. I think it likelier the gentleman's comment was meant to be cheering; a knowing wink meant to encourage the little fellow to keep at it, that the marketplace was expressing a perfectly logical preference, and that the gentleman rather liked, today at least, having happened upon, if not quite having backed, a winner in even so obscure a corner of commerce as a dear old bookstore. (In support of this, other than the sly grin he offered me, I would mention only his very nice wristwatch.)

What I think the gentleman did not appreciate was just how unlikely it is to meet a proper capitalist in a apron.

Independent bookstores are not much crowded, at least at my level, with ruthlessly objective believers in free markets. I did not say so -- as I was shocked that this fact was not evidenced by my expression, beard, clogs, etc., -- but I should think in this instance at least that I am the very embodiment of the sentimental intellectual most common to the trade, even now. I did not explain this to the gentleman, but should there actually be any reading this that don't know, the independent bookseller in an apron tends to see the books he or she sells, and the other independent, underpaid, modestly accomplished and unaccountably enthusiastic, possibly even prideful souls who sell books, as all of a piece with culture and the like, and being convinced, in our heart of hearts that without us, and without the bookstores in which we work, the wider society is hellbent for barbarous illiteracy, we tend to feel even the potential loss of another independent bookstore as another gap in the barricade. Indeed, so far are we all from being good Americans, we have been known to actually go so far as to actively seek to aid any of our wavering comrades as best we can; even sending trade their way, and if we can think of nothing else to do, spending some painful portion of our painful wages across the street, as it were, just to show fellow feeling.

I realize that this will probably strike some readers as both ridiculously inadequate, which it doubtless is, as well as counterproductive as a strategy for getting on in the world. Even I can see that. And it will probably occur to even the least wise in the ways of commerce that such sentimentality is only a little less embarrassing in a 21st Century economy than the patently ridiculous and reactionary claim that there even is such a thing as culture, or that we in retail may be said to in any way contribute to it or constitute so much as a minor constituency in it, but so we genuinely still believe.

Moreover, I am very much of the old fashioned school of thought that still believes that independent bookstores, newspapers, and public libraries with more on their shelves than DVDs and fashion magazines are necessary to any democratic society that intends to sustain itself as such, as not every citizen in the Republic, despite what one might be reading at, etc., can afford, or will ever want to read David Copperfield on a calculator, download Middlemarch onto a "notebook," or listen to War & Peace on a telephone. Books make democracy possible, cellphones and the internet are simply the means by which the middleclass presently choose to document the consequences.

So when so wonderful a bookstore as the Elliot Bay Book Co., faced with the same difficulties we've all experienced, and sadly burdened in addition with a shortsighted and otherwise occupied city government, a disgracefully neglected neighborhood, and football traffic, to say nothing of the landlord, when such a bookstore has to up stakes and move, we are all of us sad to see such things happen in a city boastful of its literacy. But we will all of us glad to see them again soon, in a better place, and not in the sense of that my grandmother might have meant.

So, again, Sir, NO, I was not glad of the latest news, and will not be altogether content until I can walk into the Elliot Bay Books Co. again and buy a book. Then I will indeed be glad. And so will, or at least so should we all be.


  1. here here! you've touched on everything that i've been thinking recently and i couldn't agree more about the cultural importance of diverse independent bookstores. good luck elliot bay!

  2. My heart sank when I read the first sentence, and I don't even live in Seattle. Glad it isn't so. All independent bookstores are my independent bookstores. I felt so at home when we visited Elliott Bay last October, as I always do in a good bookstore. I work on the assumption that everyone in a good bookstore - staff and customers - is a kindred soul.

  3. Oh, my, this is PRICELESS!! Thank you sooooooo much for everything you've said here! we're nubies compared to you, good sir, and continued to be inspired by folks like you. We all must keep on keepin' on, even more so in this day & age, despite the odds. Best wishes, Kasey, at From My Shelf bookstore, in Wellsboro, PA, open 4 years as of this coming July 2010