Why How Bookstores Matter

October 30 2020

What matters about a place is what happens there for us, as well as what we imagine happens there

A place exists first in our minds. A bookstore is something I think about going to—and then it is a destination. As this, it gives me a way to structure my day. I might meet someone there, and then it has even more impact. It might factor into a picture of my day that includes the way I feel about the neihgborhood it’s in; perhaps childhood memories of that neighborhood, or impressions from another time. It might fit into a tapestry of little visits that make my life more meaningful—a stop at the bakery, the flower shop, popping in for a quick bite at a sandwich shop.

Before I set foot out of my house, there is a tapestry of impressions I am telling myself about my visit to the bookstore; based on memories, associations, expecations. There is the excitement of a bookstore itself, which compiles the best and most interesting experiences, the knowledge from all over the world into one place—the best ideas, the most beautiful photographs, the coolest recipes… and yes, more stories—if you are a fiction lover, it is a house of stories. Places to escape to, journey through, and understand our own world better.

Even if your bookstore is a Barnes & Noble in the local mall, it probably houses the greatest concentration of knowledge, wisdom, and experience in that mall—by a factor of a thousand. If you are a brilliant, curious teenager who feels out of place in your suburb, it might provide profound windows into alternate worlds. Even now in the age of online, the tome-like quality of books, their beauty and solidity, creates something magical.

All of this will occur before I even come to the bookstore. If it occured before I even arrived, then where do all those associations about the bookstore live? They live in my mind! Visions of colors and pictures, new voices and learning, dancing around in my mind.

And I want to be part of a tribe. Bookstores gather tribes. I am special because I am different; I am one of the few in my suburb who understand the secret incantations of Wicca, and love spells. Or I matter more, because I collect World War II military aeroplane knowledge, and haunt that corner of the store; when I get back online, I will be able to show what I know to my friends, around the world. Or, I will be great, becasue I am going to beef up my resume, or start a food truck business, or take on a new investing formula, in the business area. I imagine who I will tell. I imagine who it will matter to. It makes my life matter more. I picture all the ways my knowledge will change the world; how it gives me value; how it helps me remake who I am.

There is a hunger to go to the bookstore, now—still, all in my mind. To underover hidden knowledge, or begin to learn a new language. To learn what good people used to say, that was good enough to have survived until now; or maybe I want to learn how to draw horses. As I am walking, it’s all in my mind. If the bookstore also lives in my mind, then it does not only live in the bookstore—does it?

At the bookstore, the interactions with the clerk matter. “Oh, that’s a good one—your’e going to like it!” This gives me a thrill, on the occasional moment that it does happen. I want to feel special. Sure—it’s all my doing, the books I choose; an exciting moment of my own choice, amongst nearly limitless options. And yet, I secretly want and love the acknowledgement, and like to tell myself that I am one of the smart ones; the good ones; the ones who could work in a bookstore, having their hands on the keys that unlock all of the worlds.

I love overheard conversations of other shopgoers. One mom is reading a storybook to her toddler; a couple discussing the latest novel; an artistic-looking type perusing the design books. “I am like her, I am really an artist,” I might think. Or, “that mom reminds me of when my sister read picture books to her son”; we are all part of something; we are part of a web; we are safe. We are part of a world that is shared. I am part of a tapestry, I am not just a free-floating leaf, blowing pointlessly in the air. We are of a people. We have purpose. We belong. We have stories; to live; to tell; to be a part of, with one another.

If the paper and ink in the book are worth about 12 cents, and the price of the book is $19.95, the price of the book is not just the price of what is in the book. It is the price of someting much, much greater. It is an incredible bargain.

Walking home, I now have been to the bookshop. I may stop at a coffee shop and begin to read one book, which will often lead me off in another direction now I have to write someting down… anyway, the ideas are seeding inside my mind…. The whole thing lives in my mind. The journey I made lives inside me. The well-worn woodenness of the floor and shelves, perhaps, lives in my bones now. The weirdness and thoughtfulness of the hand-written book recommendations. The care and love of the barista who made my latte in the small cafe section. All are part of a world—a world where people care about ideas, and thoughts, and human progress and meaning, a visit to a temple where people care and want to collect things worth knowing about. A place where life was concentrated, and meant something more. It made my life mean something more.

Now, out of all of this:

  • How much happened in the space, and how much happened before I was there, and after I left?
  • Even when I was there: what portion happened in the space, and what part happened in my mind?

The real physical space wove together with the stories in my mind. Calming, stimulating, interesting surroundings worked on me in positive ways. The concentrated love, work, and care of thousands of people, brought through the pages. The love, care, and thoughtfulness of the proprietors, the designers, the clerks who are keeping the place alive. It brought me there to tell tales about myself; to tell tales about the world I live in, that made me feel safer, more useful, more a part of something. It gave me stories to tell my fellow storytelling human creators, ways for them to feel purposeful, as well.

The magician undersatands the deeper layer; she does not place all the books in alphabetical order, in a grey steel rectangle, with a bored high school student standing by to ring you up, you are distracting her from her texting. (Why not?)

The magician does not make the cover of the books all the same beige color, simply outlining the contents the way a computer would, in black ink, in Helvetica. The magician does not spoil the experience by telling you exactly what you will find. —Why does she not do this?

When you understand why the magician does not do this (the inspired bookstore owner, the careful and thoughtful designer, the inspired and energetic clerk), you will understand how to weave more magic into your own space; your own bookstore; or your into whatever sort of place you are the caretaker for.

And now, websites

Now, take all this magic you know, and begint to apply it to your website. Forget about the medium (website), and think about the way this ephemeral, practiclaly nonexistent combination of pixels—an ultimate organiztion of the mind (the Internet), abstracted from place entirely—can become a way back into the space you have so carefully crafted.

Remember: as you saw above, your bookstore already exists, in many ways, as stories inside the mind of your patrons. And, your possible patrons. And this new mind-tool (your website) can help you conjure more impressions, tell more stories, about this special place; to conjure more stories and magic, that—just like the stories I told myself beore I got to the store, and after I left—enhance my impression, of the place itself. Make me feel like I belong there. Make me want to come back; and when I am not there, make me feel like I am there, somehow.

You can pull me back into the space, or to engage in the virtual space as though it is part of the real space (which I was doing anyway, as you noticed; your website can help me do it even more). You have to understand that I am paying for the sense of meaning—not just the particular book in question. You have to understand that I will always pay something (in whateve ways), just to belong. You could remember that people pay $100,000 for a car, when they could jsut as easily pay $10,000, because they want to belong. That is 98% of the reason. But your patrons don’t have to pay so much to belong, so it’s realy a bargain. But understand what it is they want to pay for.

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© Alexander Feller 2018