In the wake of Borders’ long, painful death, it’s easy to assume that it’s up to the scores of new e-readers and Barnes & Noble to pick at the carcass of the once-huge bookseller. But a cautiously optimistic New York Times article posits that independent and niche bookstores could fill part of the Borders vacuum. One such local bookshop, Wakefield Books in Wakefield, RI, moved into a space formerly occupied by a Waldenbooks (a subsidiary of Borders, also defunct). A good local bookstore knows its neighborhood better than a national corporation does; the Times lays out a formula for Wakefield’s success: “The right size store for the community (2,700 square feet), a good location (patronized by residents and summer visitors), dedicated employees (the new store kept the long-serving Waldenbooks staff), and a carefully chosen mix of titles, geared toward customers’ interests and employee picks.” Perhaps a dedication to and a deep knowledge of the community could, in a small way, make up for the convenience of e-books and the lower overhead of a corporation.
While I have fond memories of Borders, there’s a personal touch to a good independent that a chain just can’t replicate. During my first summer in New York City a few years back, when I was interning for a notoriously demanding movie producer, my first assignment was to track down an obscure, out-of-print biography of Carole Lombard by the next day. I couldn’t find it anywhere — none of the used theater bookstores had it, and neither did the online marketplaces. This producer made Miranda Priestly from The Devil Wears Prada look tame; he would absolutely be the type to tell me not to come back for my second day without the book, but not before yelling at me and throwing a desktop computer at my head. After a full day of searching dusty Manhattan bookshops and walking into the apartments of strangers from Craigslist who’d claimed to have the book (they didn’t), I returned to my student housing building in Brooklyn Heights sure that I’d be fired and humiliated the next day. After dinner on Montague Street that night, I stopped in a small used bookstore, Heights Books (pictured above, since relocated), and asked the friendly salesperson if they by any chance had the Lombard book, not for one moment thinking they would. The man immediately went to a back corner, moved a few stacks of books around, and presented me with a lovingly used copy of the book I was looking for. For the rest of the summer, I was treated like a super-intern, and I returned to Heights Books many times for their quirky yet broad selection and their actual discounts (Strand, you don’t compare).
Another independent that holds a special place in my heart: Outwrite Bookstore in my native Atlanta, GA. Growing up in a sheltered neighborhood, I had no idea that anything like an LGBT bookstore existed so closeby. When a friend took me there for the first time when I was in high school, I was in awe of all the titles and the fact that LGBT-themed YA books existed. Also, they were great about stocking self-published books by local writers, and the people-watching was incomparable. In my car-less teen years, I’d take the train to Outwrite and attend readings by Leslie Jordan and the late E. Lynn Harris. I’d also sit in the cafe there and write short stories while sipping the most amazing coffee; one dreadlocked lesbian employee was especially great at making leaf designs out of the foam — she’d start over if she didn’t get it perfect. I’ll never forget that she once traded me a cup of coffee for a MARTA card when I didn’t have the cash.
Now that Borders is gone, maybe it’s time to go back to some forgotten independent bookstores. Tell us about your favorite local bookstores (what makes them special, great experiences you’ve had) and we’ll feature a few in an upcoming Shelf Life item. Please don’t include store URLs in the comments — just clearly tell us the store’s name and town.