An Ode to Bookstores and Promiscuous Reading

From a New York Times story by guest writer Tish Harrison Warren headlined “An Ode to Bookstores and Promiscuous Reading”:

Bookstores, like wines, have different notes, different flavors, each one distinct. There are the musty, quirky ones with haphazard piles and dusty rows, usually with both used and new books. There are the small indie stores, quaint, cozy and scrappy. Then there’s the big-box gleam of long, straight rows, bright and dustless, with a café and a kids section you can get lost in.

My adoration for bookstores is, without a doubt, partly nostalgic. I came of age in the late 1990s and early 2000s, when Amazon was mostly known as a river in South America, phones were not smart and bookstores were everywhere.

When my husband and I were dating, our go-to date was to get coffee and walk around bookstores together. It was the best. We’d move slowly, meandering through the religion section, the memoirs, fiction, poetry, history. I’d pick up a title I’d heard about and sit in the aisle reading a chapter. I’d find one I’d never heard of and scan the back cover. We’d sip our coffee and read each other interesting paragraphs from books we found. I fell for bookstores and for my husband at the same time. So when stores began closing down all over America, we were both bereaved. What were we supposed to do with a night out now?

Another part of my nostalgia is that, right out of college, I worked at a Borders. I loved my bibliophile co-workers. And I loved watching our customers. It was a hangout for everyone in town. There were kids and old people and college students. We had the recipe crowd and the comic book crowd and the academic crowd and the young adult fiction crowd and the magazine crowd. I saw there what happens when a community comes together around books.

In a recent very informal and unscientific poll of my friends, I found that many of us love and miss physical bookstores. Friends described the feeling of discovery and exploration, the calming serenity of being surrounded by words and ideas. My wise friend Greg said, “Bookstores are like the best parties: You may discover a new friend or join an unexpected conversation with a simple turn of your head.” And everyone agreed that they love the smell.

Bookstores, like libraries, are bastions of materiality, of physical spaces, of touchable, turnable pages. They represent not just an aesthetic preference but a way of being.

And this is why I find myself, to my surprise, cheering even for Barnes & Noble. It’s strange because at one point, I saw the big-box bookstore as the enemy. I championed the small, indie mom-and-pop store. Even when I worked at Borders, as ridiculous as it sounds now, we thought of ourselves as the edgy bookstore in town. Of course, we too worked for a corporate multinational chain. But my co-workers had tattoos and wore ratty T-shirts. We played in bands and wrote bad poetry. The Barnes & Noble across town was the strait-laced store with collared shirts and matching name tags.

Looking back, I didn’t know what an embarrassment of riches we had: so many brick-and-mortar bookstores that I could be choosy and arbitrarily snobby about them. So now, 20 years late, I’d like to officially apologize to Barnes & Noble.

As we all know, Amazon’s growth strangled many bookstores. (Amazon itself began opening physical bookstores in 2015 but announced in March that it will close all of them.) The entire Borders chain filed for bankruptcy and closed its remaining stores in 2011. A Trader Joe’s now stands where my Borders used to be.

In April, Elizabeth Harris reported for The Times that against all odds, Barnes & Noble’s sales are up. And book sales in particular — as opposed to its other offerings, like gifts and games — are up 14 percent from before the pandemic started. Harris wrote, “Today, virtually the entire publishing industry is rooting for Barnes & Noble.”

The Barnes & Noble resurgence is a victory, not only for us nostalgic ’90s kids but for readers in general. And for our social discourse. Amazon’s algorithms market books to us, but they rarely lead us to those hidden treasures that, by serendipity, we happen upon in a bookstore. In brick-and-mortar stores we can quite literally bump into ideas we’d never otherwise find.

I used to live near a self-described “radical” bookstore in Austin. It’s the kind of place where I might come across a book on queer contributions to the labor movement or anarchist movements around the world. I’m a mom with a minivan, and I’m an Anglican priest. These probably aren’t the books that Amazon would pick for me, which is precisely why I loved spending time in the small, stuffed aisles of this store. I’d leave with a book under my arm, pages full of perspectives I never would have encountered otherwise.

Barnes & Noble may not have such a radical and diverse cache of books, but it does offer the possibility of discovery in a way that algorithms and screens simply cannot. We need indie booksellers, but at this point, we need all the physical bookstores we can get. We need as many opportunities as possible to encounter books in the wild, offline, books we can pick up and be surprised by, books in spaces we can mill about and share with others.

So though I’m drawn to bookstores because of my nostalgia, there’s more to it than that. I believe in bookstores in part because I believe in pluralism. I believe that we need diverse ideas, competing worldviews and mutually exclusive truth claims discussed deeply and respectfully in our culture. I believe the best, truest and most beautiful ideas rise to the top, and because of that, I believe that, as my friend Karen Swallow Prior says, echoing John Milton, we need to “read promiscuously.”

But we don’t usually encounter the same depth of ideological diversity among books online. I go to Amazon with a book in mind, I buy it. That’s it. No browsing, no spending the day trekking through shelves full of authors I’ve never heard of. Of course there are lists on Amazon, like “Discover your next read” or “Products related to this item,” and I’m grateful they are there.

In order to have a flourishing — or even functional — society in our pluralistic and conflict-ridden world, we need good books from all kinds of perspectives. We need ideas that we love and ideas that we hate to be published and sold. And we need to encounter these ideas. They need not be spirited away in favor of curated beliefs and preferences that fit us like a glove, that reinforce just what we already think and believe.

Social media, with its theoretical diversity of opinions, doesn’t cut it. Books typically present far more thoughtful, studied and nuanced perspectives than can fit in a short tweet or post. And a book is much more of an investment — on the part of the author and reader alike. This kind of investment allows a table to be set where we can empathetically listen to another perspective, even if we ultimately disagree with it.

In 2019, LifeWay, a conservative Christian bookstore chain, announced it was closing its brick-and-mortar stores. There was some high-fiving and celebrating among parts of progressive Christian Twitter. LifeWay did not sell my books, presumably because I am a female priest. Nevertheless, I mourned the chain’s closure. I disagree with ideas in many of the books it sold. Its leadership obviously disagrees with me on quite a bit. But it is never a win for society to have fewer books out in the world, even if that includes books I disagree with.

I dream of an America with streets full of independent bookstores whose inventories contradict one another — gay bookstores and Catholic bookstores and evangelical bookstores and radical anarchist bookstores. But right now I am rooting for Barnes & Noble, too. I’m rooting for any brick-and-mortar bookstore, really. Any place that reminds us that the material world is beautiful and worth spending time in. Any place where we can learn how to exist together in communities chock-full of words and ideas. Any place where we may discover something unpredictable and new. And if there’s coffee nearby, even better.

Tish Harrison Warren is a priest in the Anglican Church in North America and author of “Prayer in the Night: For Those Who Work or Watch or Weep.”

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