Our Reading Lives

Our Reading Lives: I Want to Open a Bookstore

Our Reading Lives features stories about how books and reading have shaped who we are and how we live.

Our Reading Lives features stories about how books and reading have shaped who we are and how we live. It is open not only to regular Book Riot contributors, but to guest posters from the publishing industry, authors, and….you. If you are interested in telling us about a book that has been influential in your life, please contact us: community (at) bookriot (dot) com.

This installment comes from Morgan Macgregor. Morgan is a reader living in Los Angeles. She blogs at Reading in LA and is working on her first novel. 

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I want to open a bookstore. Here’s why:

The Personal

In high school, I was a cashier in a bookstore. I distinctly remember the horror, and I mean horror, I felt when I looked up from the register during a shift and saw my family doctor standing in line, clutching a stack of books. I dove under the register. I literally dropped to all fours, and hid beneath the counter, and whisper-yelled to the girl working beside me to jump onto my station for a second.

Here’s what I was thinking: Oh my god. That’s my doctor. That man has seen me naked. He has been seeing me naked since I was a baby. I have never seen that man outside of the room in which he’s been seeing me naked for eighteen years. I do not want to know what books he’s buying.

See, it wasn’t the nudity that seemed overly personal to me, it was the books. I was embarrassed for him, not for me. I thought that he, being a doctor, and having this very particular, insular kind of relationship with his patients, probably wouldn’t want those people knowing what he likes to read in his spare time.

Okay, I mean, I was a teenager. But the point I’m trying to make it this: books have always seemed incredibly personal to me. Despite the fact that we decorate our most public rooms with them, brandish them on trains and planes, leave them splayed on coffee tables for everyone to see, I believe that the books you buy are a sincere expression of who you are as a person. As a seventeen-year-old, I imagined that my doctor did not want me to know who he was as a person.

I’m twenty-eight now. I love people, I love talking to them. I want to know everything about them. But there’s a paradox. For as long I can remember, I’ve had the experience of feeling like I lead two distinct lives: my reading life, and my lived life. And I have always felt, keenly, sometimes bewilderingly, that my reading life is more real, more alive, than my lived life. Sometimes it’s hard for me to connect with people, or to plug into real-time moments, because I find myself thinking about reading or books while I’m trying to do something else. And I have unlimited energy for books; I can read for hours without getting tired, while sometimes I find fifteen minutes of social interaction totally obliterating.

There is one exception: when the interaction has to do with books or reading. I can talk about books forever. And because I believe that books are personal, I feel like I’m really getting to know people when we’re talking about books, and likewise, that they’re getting to know me, the real me, the reading life me.

And thus: my personal reason for wanting to open a bookstore is that I feel like it is the realest, most authentic, most personal way that I can connect with people. Designing a space, filling it with books that I’ve chosen, and inviting people into that world, involving them in the creation and evolution of that world : that feels like inviting them into my life in the realest sense I can imagine.

In Areopagitica: A Speech for the Liberty of Unlicensed Printing to the Parliament of England, John Milton said, “Books are not absolutely dead things, but do contain a potency of life in them to be as active as that soul was whose progeny they are; nay, they do preserve as in a vial the purest efficacy and extraction of that living intellect that bred them.”

I’d say the same goes for bookstores.

The Political

Yes. I believe that opening a bookstore is a political act, just as shopping locally is. Okay, admittedly, I’ve been reading Jaron Lanier’s You Are Not a Gadget, and wholly agree with him that the antidote to the dehumanizing, devaluing and homogenizing effects of the digital noosphere on us as a species is: face-to-face human interaction. But leaving that broadly aside, here are some specific examples, drawn directly from my own experience, of how independent bookstores are important, relevant, and political.

1. First, and most obvious: People still buy physical, paper books, and that’s not going to change anytime soon. I just finished working the holiday season at an independent bookstore in *New York, and even with a full staff, working from open to close, there wasn’t a second to spare in there. The store was packed with people buying books. Many customers made it a point to tell us that they were buying their books from us expressly to counteract the growing influence of Amazon and e-readers. I appreciate this, and I do this as a consumer, too. However, I don’t necessarily see me owning a bookstore as oppositional in nature. I’d rather say, simply, that I am for independent bookstores, not against online shopping. I am for books, not against e-readers. I’m not alone. Look around. Books are not going away.

2. Bookstores bring people together physically. In October, I went to see Jonathan Franzen in conversation with David Remnick at a theater in Chelsea. It was an incredible talk. Franzen literally hypnotized three-hundred people as he recounted the breakfast he made for himself after getting the call that his father had died. After the talk, as we stumbled out — stunned, squinting — onto the street at 11:30 on a Sunday morning, it seemed that no one knew quite what to do with themselves. I went and got a coffee, and then, feeling like it was the only thing to do at that moment, I went to the nearest bookstore, which happened to be 192 Books, an indie store a couple blocks away. And lo — you know what’s coming here, right? — the store was buzzing with dozens of people who’d just come from the event. Some of them were buying Franzen’s books, some were looking at books he’d referenced during the talk, but most of the people were just talking. They were standing around in a public place, surrounded by books, talking to each other. We could have all gone home and jumped onto a message board or a social-networking site to share our experience, but we didn’t. We wanted to be around each other, physically.

3. Booksellers are valuable. One of the most common laments about Amazon is the algorithm used to determine “books you may like.” The complaint goes like this: by using information about your past purchases, combined with the “types” of books you generally click on while using the site, Amazon reduces your tastes to a formula, reduces the very idea of “you” as a reader, and that will all but ensure that you’ll never be surprised by anything, never branch out from what you already know you like, and your reading life will never grow. I agree with this, completely. The Amazon algorithm rips the reader off in a major way. But the reader isn’t the only person left out in this problem. What about the bookseller? Handselling, I would argue, requires hands. When you shop on Amazon, you are the only person. When you shop in a bookstore, there’s a whole other human, with an entirely unique reading history to draw upon, to help you choose a book for yourself or someone else. You want to know the most common question I was asked in the bookstore this season? It wasn’t “What will I like?” It was, “What do you like? What have you enjoyed recently?” When I sell a book to you, there are two of us. This exchange is something that cannot be replaced by technology, ever.

4. Bookstores have aesthetic and real value to a community. Leaving aside the purely aesthetic value of the inside of a bookstore, (I can’t tell you how many times, when working in a bookstore, I’ve heard people say what a relief it is just to come in and experience the smell, the feel, the atmosphere of a bookstore) a bookstore itself is a sign of economic health in a community. For stats, read Rebel Bookseller: Why Indie Bookstores Represent Everything You Want to Fight for from Free Speech to Buying Local to Building Communities. Independent bookstores foster community spirit, local-mindedness and regional economic growth. And they look good. That’s not to be underestimated. They provide a pleasant aesthetic experience (because going into a store is an experience) for the people in the community.

So, there are my reasons. Or some of them. Am I crazy? Probably. Starting and running a small business is hard as hell, even for people who know about business, which I don’t. I have a ton of work to do.

In Rebel Bookseller, Andrew Laties talks about employing the Buddhist concept of death energy:“Every moment, you think about your possibly imminent death…so, you can focus on the fact that your independent bookstore is doomed and then let this reality prevent you from launching the thing. Or you can focus on your doom and use this foreknowledge to help you plan for finessing your business’s reincarnation.”

I got some mad death energy, y’all. I’m doing this thing. Holler if you wanna join me.

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* Surely, some people will say, “Yes, but that’s New York,” and I would counter that independent bookstores are going out of business in New York just as fast (if not faster) as they are elsewhere in the country. The reason this particular bookstore is thriving is that it operates on the most local, community-based level possible. But that’s a conversation for another time.