Independent bookstores are the polar bears of the literary establishment. With the entire publishing industry in peril , they’re the endangered species that serves as a harbinger for the future. Three new books celebrate, sometimes wistfully, the joys of a well-stocked store.
Wendy Welch and her husband, Jack Beck, always wanted to open a bookstore. They bought a big Edwardian house in a tiny Appalachian town and built some shelves. (They already had two cats.) That was about the extent of their preparation, Welch notes ruefully in her charming memoir, The Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap (St. Martin’s, $24.99). With no money to buy books, Welch and Beck filled the shelves by raiding their own collections, scouring garage sales and offering store credit in exchange for people’s castoff sci-fi and Western collections. With an advertising budget the size of a grocery bill, Beck tried guerrilla marketing: He stood outside the local Wal-Mart and passed out bookmarks. “Where there’s giggling, there’s hope. Hope coupled with hard work can trump even stupidity,” Welch writes. And in this case, some formidable odds: According to an article Welch read after they opened for business, in their town of 5,000, the shop could expect to make a whopping $1,000 in its first year. Saved by a refusal to go into debt and sheer stubbornness, the professor and the Scottish folk singer managed to hang on. The used-book store survived in the face of skeptical locals, small-town politics, the recession and the rise of e-readers.
It’s hard to imagine Isabel Allende and Chuck Palahniuk appearing in the same anthology, but the plight of bookstores is such a rallying cry that both signed on, along with dozens of other writers, as contributors to My Bookstore (Black Dog & Leventhal, $23.95). John Grisham,Richard Russo, Louise Erdrich (who owns her own bookstore) and Ann Patchett (ditto) are among those penning odes to their favorite bookstore. (Rick Bragg is thankful that his doesn’t have a cat.) Some have come back from disasters worse than the Great Recession: The Odyssey in South Hadley, Mass., burned down twice in five months. After the store was destroyed in an earthquake in 1989, the owners of Bookshop Santa Cruz, “with that blessed, mad optimism of their breed,” still held its annual birthday party, remembers mystery writer Laurie R. King. Local fans carried the books out of the badly damaged structure, and owners Neal and Candy Coonerty operated out of a tent for three years. After the permanent home was ready, locals triumphantly carried the books back in again.
In Kepler’s you could find a pre-Grateful Dead Jerry Garcia playing the guitar in the back room or Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak shopping for engineering books, writes Washington journalist Michael Doyle in his scholarly Radical Chapters (Syracuse University , $29.95) . Less an ode to the San Francisco Bay Area bookstore than an authoritative biography of its iconoclastic owner, “Radical Chapters” opens with Roy Kepler’s years as a conscientious objector in World War II and focuses on the 1960s, when Kepler managed Joan Baez ’s finances and taught a new generation how to protest. Doyle, who visited Kepler’s as a boy and interviewed the owner before his death, believes that Kepler saw the bookstore mainly as a means to support his family, but pacifism was his mission. Alas, the health of its owner and the business started to decline. Kepler died in 1994 , and the last of his three stores closed in 2005 — three months after the chain’s 50th anniversary . But the Menlo Park store has enjoyed an unlikely resurrection , thanks to community investors who have reopened the doors and turned the lights back on . Today, it s future remains as uncertain as any independent bookstore’s, Doyle writes in an epilogue, but here’s hoping it and all the rest of the nation’s indies enjoy a new chapter.
Zipp regularly reviews books for the Christian Science Monitor and The Washington Post.