Q: "Where are your books on leather-working?"
Let me answer that customer question, but then, let's just take a moment to review recent developments in the bookstore where I work, and the business of bookselling and the wider culture, shall we?
Back up. How sweet is it that there are still people in the world who can confidently ask such a question with every expectation that there are books -- plural -- on leather-working AND that those books are in-print and on the shelves at a bookstore? It's touching, that conviction that needs will be met. It speaks to a faith in publishing, and capitalism, and the resources of independent bookstores that is frankly breath-taking in 2019.
Then there's the charming notion (?) that leather-work is still, as they say, "a thing." Is it? Not appropriate in a retail setting to compound the disappointment that awaits my interlocutor by answering her question with another and obvious question as to why on earth she is asking. Has Madame broken the strap on her Roman sandal? Does Madame miss the belt she made at scout camp? Looking for promotion at the tannery? Etsy?
Even if every option from The Beast That Eats Bookstores was actually on our shelves, the word "books" would now seem optimistic.
None of which one said. One instead made the all too common sympathetic-face and suggested that, alas, Madame might do better to direct her inquiry to the central library. Nobody is suggesting that there have not been books, surely hundreds of books, on the subject. Some may yet to be culled from the stacks. (Dewey decimal # 675, "Leather and Fur Working." I just looked it up online. Ah, the Information Age! We do live in truly remarkable times, do we not?)
Before I'm accused -- perhaps not unfairly -- of dyspepsia, let me just say, I sympathize. The expectation that a large bookstore should have books on almost any subject did once, within my lifetime, at least feel
true. It may not have been. In fact, I'm sure it never was, but it did seem so when I started in the business some thirty or more years ago. Indeed, I do remember selling books on leather-work. I can also remember selling books on egg-tempera painting techniques, shoe-making, the Civil Engineering Exam, and un-ironic instruction in blacksmithing, building a personal computer from scratch, bookkeeping, and record-collecting. I'm so old, I remember Signet Classic, the Thomas Bros. driving maps, mass-market paperbacks of 18th Century novels, anthologies of the year's best plays, children's books not "written" by celebrities and other television personalities, and biographies without pictures. I remember when all publishers weren't the wholly owned subsidiaries of Random House. Hell, I remember when there were bookstores that specialized in sailing, mysteries, engineering, car-repair, and gardening.
Set aside for the moment out-of-print or unavailable books about which I may myself care: like a standard edition of Yeats' poems, the novels of Jorge Amado, or Tobias Smollett, or The Essays of Elia
. Where are the nonfiction books for which we still get asked every day? Where now are the tabs for the Building Code? Where is woodworking? Fence-building? Mexican history? What's become of photography instruction? Opera scores?
The short answer is "check online." The short answer is also, "good luck," "I'm so sorry," and "excellent question!"
Again, the books our customers remember were not all lost in a fire. What was may still be, elsewhere, for now. (And there are all those helpful Youtube videos!)
Q: Does anyone really mourn the US Master Tax Guide
? (A: Yes.)
The attachment of readers to established forms is a subject for better minds than mine. Yes, we want the calendar we've always bought, the Moleskin notebook we bought last year, another book with a sixteen year old heroine who saves the world. I mean, I just bought a new translation of the second Three Musketeers book. Who am I to judge your devotion to books about standard-gauge railways?
And, yes, a bookstore can probably order you your calendar, or the third book in the series you love. (Though if you make me look up your favorite Moleskin -- lined, with the not blue cover -- We cannot be friends.)
The cliche of the day is that access to information has never been easier, better, simpler. That's as may be. The reliability of said information is, again, a topic for another day and a different writer. My question though is what does access mean? Obviously the answer, the answer in fact to any and all questions now, is digital. Go on. Ask Google or Alexa the meaning of life. May not be the answer for which you were looking, but answers there will be.
When I was a boy I found most answers in books. Better than this, I found the right questions. Some of the answers I found were ridiculous, even harmful. See Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex* (*But Were Afraid to Ask)
, by the much misinformed and surprisingly not yet dead Dr. David Reuben, MD. For me, books represented authority. Eventually I learned that just because something was in a book -- let alone what people I grew up with could still smugly call "The
Book," -- did not mean a thing was true. Still, better a book than a bathroom-wall, the neighbors, or my disastrously ignorant seventh-grade history teacher. It seems that even now I am not alone in my prejudice in favor of print -- and facts.
Should anyone assume that I plan here to wax nostalgic for the public libraries of my childhood, you know me not at all. Those institutions were woeful even then, both in terms of selection and access. I wasn't meant to use the library in town, as we lived outside of town. The libraries in my public schools were sorry things, meant more for detention and napping than reading, and all of the libraries I knew then seemed to have been staffed by that same angry virgin; a lady devoted to blacking out with a marker the bare breasts in The National Geographic, quieting disruptions, and insisting that children should read at the appropriate "grade level."
No. I am a product of yard-sales, junk-shops, and that first demi-paradise of sweet memory, the Waldenbooks in the Hermitage Towne Plaza, or was it the Shenago Valley Mall?, in Sharon, PA. My OZ was borrowed from a neighbor, my Huckleberry Finn and Long John Silver were met in the pages of a dead uncle's books. I traveled to the Galactic Empire by way of musty paperbacks had for a quarter apiece and the first night I spent with Scheherazade was in a stray volume and was well into her reign.
I know something then of the haphazard education to be had from just the books that happen to be to-hand. I also know if only anecdotally what it feels like to not have access due to class, place of origin, and income.
The great glory of the great libraries and bookstores in which I eventually found myself was not just that the doors that opened to everyone, but the abundance of what was inside. I well remember stepping into my first college library, my first big bookstore. (And hang, incidentally all discussion of "atmospheres". Both were as ugly as the taste of the time for metal shelving and florescent lighting could make them.) The impact of such institutions was numerical, not aesthetic. Here at last was Aladdin's cave! The collective treasures of humanity's wisdom and petty preoccupations, of history and hobbyhorses, "of shoes and ships -- and sealing wax -- of cabbages and kings', all of it seemed to be on those noisy, bowing shelves.
"Red leather, yellow leather, red leather, yellow leather..."
Some things are hard to say. It isn't easy saying "no" to customers who in their innocence have come to expect not only "yes" but the all but instant gratification of their every retail wish. People's patience is not what it used to be.
Recently I went on a tear and ordered online three out-of-print books by a writer I'd only just discovered. What a pleasure! To be able to get at books I did not know I needed until I looked for them. Straight to my door, a week or so later as I didn't need them badly enough to pay for expedited shipping.
I get it, I do.
But how did I know any such thing? Well, I found a book in a bookstore and wanted more. What then if what I'd wanted hadn't been an out-of-print novel? What if what I wanted hadn't been literature as such? What if what was wanted was a book on, say, leather-working?