I agree with Michael’s post yesterday. Barnes and Noble and Borders are intimidating. Not to say that I won’t spend an afternoon there with a giant stack of books from a myriad of genres and the biggest cup of coffee they have to offer (which is pretty big), but on the days when I actually want to browse for a book I intend to buy, I head to smaller locations. I get overwhelmed by the rows and rows of shelves within shelves and soon realize I’m not even reading the bindings anymore, but just skimming the colors and shapes of each book—only picking up ones that stand out in that respect regardless of the title.
Smaller bookshops, whether they house used books, are devoted to a single genre, or are just mini versions of the massive box stores have an appeal that cannot be rivaled. My two favorite places to spend my book money in the city are the Housing Works Bookstore Café in Soho and WORD Books in Brooklyn. They both have their own unique feel—a sort of atmosphere that is lacking in the impersonal, albeit well-stocked shelves of the giant bookstore chains.
The selection is smaller, sure, but unless I’m looking for something absolutely specific, I find that doesn’t matter. I’ll still always find something I want and I feel that my choice is much better made. If I’m having trouble, the staff in a small bookstore will more likely know each book they do stock and will often have certain opinions and recommendations, which is an undeniable advantage of a smaller selection. In fact, both Housing Works and WORD pepper their shelves with little handwritten index cards from members of the staff praising their most recent literary loves. Because they can’t just sell every book that comes out, there has to be some level of thought and selection put into stocking the independent bookshops.
Smaller stores foster a sense of community—there even used to be a corkboard in WORD that served as a sort of personals section. Anyone could fill out a slip of paper with their name, age and email address followed by books and authors they loved as well as those they hated and then pin it up on the board, in the hopes that some book-reading match made in heaven would soon emerge.
As the holiday season is upon us, gift-buying must be as well. Shopping in an environment that fosters conversation and comfort as opposed to impersonal abundance, I feel, gives the gift itself greater meaning. Sure, the person you so carefully chose that book for might not know where it was bought, but the sense of thought and care that went into it is surely palpable.
I don’t want to come off totally disparaging the bookstore giants—I love them, too. If you’re looking for something specific, either they’ll have it or will almost certainly have the resources to order it for you. Nowadays there’s near a guarantee that they have a café attached, so there’s no end to the hours you can spend there poring over books you might actually have no intention of buying (okay, so there is an end, as the only times I’ve ever been in a Borders past closing time were for crucial Harry Potter book purchases). Living in the city, it’s easy to forget that oftentimes independent bookstores can’t survive elsewhere and it’s nice to know that the big places are still accessible to the vast majority of the population.
I have a specific experience in mind when I consider entering these havens I call smaller bookstores. When I go book shopping, I want to enjoy it, take my time and truly feel as if I picked the perfect book to read next. I know the next time I go into WORD, the girl behind the desk will be familiar and friendly. I’ll read the lists of updated favorites they tack to the walls as well as the new recommendations on the shelves. There might not be miles and miles of selection, but I’ll hardly miss it once I find the next book I have to have.