The joys of a real bookstore

There was a thought-provoking little piece in the WSJ today by a bookstore owner in Tennessee:

The weather in Tennessee has been unaccountably beautiful this summer, with late July temperatures in the 70s rather than the 100s. The drive from Chattanooga, where President Obama gave his jobs speech at the Amazon warehouse Tuesday, to Nashville, where I am the co-owner of Parnassus Books, is a scenic two hours.

I wish he’d come by.

Thanks to the Amazon warehouse, there are about 7,000 new jobs in Chattanooga, many of them seasonal. But to celebrate Amazon as an employer is to ignore all the jobs that have been squeezed out of the economy as independent bookstores and other small businesses have been forced to close their doors, unable to compete with the undercut pricing the online retail giant offers. And with those shuttered bookstores go a big part of our community.

In the time-honored tradition of bookstores everywhere, our store is staffed by readers—people who want to talk about the books they love. We’re not handing out algorithms based on what books other people have bought. These aren’t widgets we’re selling….

Actually, it was more of a feeling-provoking piece than thought-provoking, I suppose. And my feelings were conflicted.

First, I felt sympathy for the person trying to operate a mom-and-pop bookstore in this age. At the same time, I noticed that this person didn’t get into the business until 2011. A former editor of mine retired more than 10 years ago and started an online used book business, so it’s not like this phenomenon snuck up on this person. This is somewhat different from the character in “You’ve Got Mail” who inherited a charming little bookshop.

Second, I felt identification with someone who would rather browse books in person than buy one online. That happens to be one of my very favorite leisure-time activities, when I have leisure time. So it is that I continue to root for Barnes & Noble to hang in there with the real, live bookstore thing.

Third, I felt guilty because, well, as much as I love browsing a bookstore, I’ve always had a preference for Barnes & Noble over the charming little mom-and-pop types. Even though Rhett Jackson was a friend of mine, I seldom frequented his shop. If I went there, it was to quickly find a book and buy it. There’s something, for me, about having the vast space and great variety of B&N to wander in, while sipping a hot Starbucks coffee. (Here’s another confession: When I go to the one on Harbison, the one I frequent most, I actually go to the Starbucks over across the parking lot, rather than getting my coffee in the bookstore cafe. Partly because I can use my Starbucks card there.)

Of course, as I’ve confessed before, I usually don’t actually buy a book at the end of those browses. But when I do buy a book — as I did just this last weekend — I buy it at B&N.

Finally, I felt out-bookwormed by this woman. As you would expect from someone who sells new books, she’s very up-to-date in her reading. I seldom read a book that was written in the last 10 years, or even 50 years — there’s just too great a wealth of old stuff that I’ll never get to, I have little interest in keeping up with the best-seller lists. Since I started reading the daily book reviews in the WSJ, I have gotten a little more interested in recent books — but when I get one of them, it still tends to sit on my shelves for months or even years before I actually read it. I like to let them age a little. So much of the rest of my life has been spent keeping up with the latest, and meeting deadlines. Part of the pleasure of a book is knowing it will sit there and wait for me indefinitely, and be just as rewarding when I finally pick it up.

I use Amazon for all sorts of things. Particularly phone accessories — USB cords, earbuds — which are amazingly cheaper than in a store. Or when I’m shopping for some particular item someone wants for Christmas or birthday, and I don’t immediately find it in the first store where I look — I’ll just stand there in the store and order it over my phone.

But books I want to hold in my hand before I buy.

48 thoughts on “The joys of a real bookstore

  1. Silence

    I used to enjoy going to B&N and hanging out, browsing and sampling books. Now I just wait for the movie to come outbuy books on my Amazon Kindle. I don’t miss the bookstore much, and they tend to frown upon hanging out comfortably in your underwear, which I can do at home, with my Kindle.

  2. Kathryn Fenner

    I loved an indie bookstore in Toco Hills shopping center near Emory, when I was in law school and finally, barely, able to afford new hardcover books. I got introduced to so many now-favorite authors there, including Jill McCorkle, who has a great new novel out. The chain stores seldom had much I wanted, back then, but the bigger ones do now, sometimes. Amazon just has more, and their algorithm works for me. I also get a lot of review copies as part of the Vine Program, which promotes many less-well known authors. They also reissue a lot of overlooked oldies….I love Amazon. Cheaper and better. I can make my own coffee, from organic beans bought from Amazon, ground in my burr grinder, from Amazon…..

  3. Doug Ross

    I also use a Kindle. I find it easier to keep multiple books going at one time on the Kindle. Read a chapter of one, read a chapter of another. With my travel schedule, I don’t want to carry around multiple books.

    1. Silence

      That’s exactly why I got my Kindle. I got tired of lugging multiple books on trips. I had limited opportunity on my travels to restock, and I couldn’t bear to abandon books along the way…Then I updated to the Kindle FIre HD and am loving watching video on it.

    2. Kathryn Fenner

      Yes, I can see the appeal of a Kindle for a frequent traveler, though I would rather be finishing my eBook, downloaded on my recent foreign trip, in conventional form, instead of on my iPad mini. I understand the Kindle is lighter, though.

  4. Kevin Dietrich

    It’s interesting how few of the classics are in bookstores such as Barnes and Noble today. They have the basics – the best-known novels from, say, Tolstoy, Twain or Thackeray – but try finding lesser-known but still very good books by any of those authors and you’ll have to order them.

    So much space is devoted to the book of the month, or week. Books that will mostly be all but forgotten in 10 years.

  5. Brad Warthen Post author

    I make fresh-ground coffee at home, too (I have one of those things that automatically grinds and brews). But it’s not as good as what I can get at Starbucks, even though I use Starbucks beans at home. They’re just better at it.

    Also, there’s the fact that I think the whole “I made it myself” satisfaction that we’re supposed to feel is overrated. I’m more like Yossarian, to cite one of my favorite books:

    (T)here were many officers’ clubs that Yossarian had not helped build, but he was proudest of the one on Pianosa. It was a sturdy and complex monument to his powers of determination. Yossarian never went there to help until it was finished; then he went there often, so pleased was he with the large, fine, rambling shingled building. It was a truly splendid structure, and Yossarian throbbed with a might sense of accomplishment each time he gazed at it and reflected that none of the work that had gone into it was his.

    There are a lot of things about Yossarian that I thought were sort of shameful, if taken literally, when I first read the book, and that was one of them. But I have to admit that there’s some of that in me.

    I’m that way about coffee, anyway. Coffee that other people make for me tastes, at least sometimes, better than that which I made myself.

    1. Kathryn Fenner

      I like Cafe Altura Columbian Dark Roast far better than Starbucks. The Tchibo coffee we got in Germany was even better….

          1. Rose

            Mountain Dew was my morning drug of choice from college years until recently. I’ve switched to Coca-Cola in the mornings now, and am stepping down further to green tea. Eventually. Some day. Probably after my son graduates from college.

          2. Silence

            Growing up we drank Coca Cola products, not Pepsi products, so I never really developed a taste for “the dew” but I’ll get it at a restaurant instead of Pepsi-Cola. Blech.

  6. Bryan Caskey

    What about when you already know the book you want, and there’s no need to browse? Bookstores are great for browsing and passing time as a leisure activity, but I’m sure you’ve had an occasion where you absolutely know that you want to buy a certain book before you walked in the store. Do you go to a bookstore and buy it?

    For instance, I knew that I wanted to buy the final book in Rick Atkinson’s “Liberation Trilogy”. I didn’t pay the higher price at a store. I got it for the best price on Amazon.

    1. Kathryn Fenner

      I buy fiction and very specific books. Amazon is indispensable for the latter, since few bookstores stock, for example, plan books of old farmhouses. The former, I just appreciate the lower cost of Amazon.

      I do love the bookstore coffee smell. One reason to love the Woodhill Target….one more reason…..

  7. bud

    There was a very funny line from the movie Matilda where Danny DeVito’s character told his bookworm daughter, Matilda, (paraphrasing) that he couldn’t understand why anyone would waste her time reading all those books while there was a perfectly good TV sitting in the living room. I read my fair share of non-fiction books but haven’t read a novel in years. I’m afraid I don’t have the patience. But I admire folks who do.

    1. Kathryn Fenner

      It doesn’t take patience to read a novel; just a taste for fiction. if you don’t enjoy it, nothing wrong with that….but you should still read some of them in high school, for a good foundation.

      1. Silence

        I just thought it was humorous that bud is quoting a movie, adapted from a book, about wasting time reading a book when there’s movies/tv available to watch. Roald Dahl would have also found that humorous.

      2. Doug Ross

        A foundation that you don’t use? Sort of like building a basement for a house and then walking away… waste of time. Perhaps some people don’t get anything out of the selections that are mandatory in high school because they are boring. It would be better to encourage reading versus mandating a set of books that are “important”.

        1. Kathryn Fenner

          You cannot know that you didn’t use it. There’s no control “Doug” who never read, or more importantly, thought about classic literature….

          1. Doug Ross

            That’s the biggest copout I’ve ever heard. That would suggest that you can’t tell the value of ANY education or any experience in general. Everything is the same.

            The value of education is the application of education. I have not applied any of the classic literature education I have received. I also found it boring and hated all the time I wasted on it. What I learned from the experience is that I wouldn’t force anyone else to go through it.

          2. Kathryn Fenner

            Yeah, and all the math haters, and other school haters who swear they never use their educations should have just dropped out of first grade….

          3. Doug Ross

            You use math. You don’t use Shakespeare. But I would agree that schools waste too much time as well teaching math that is not used.

            Isn’t it amazing that pretty much everyone is exposed to all the same cookie cutter English education yet it doesn’t create any demand for the type of literature once the mandatory requirements are completed? People want to read Fifty Shades of Grey, Harry Potter, The Girl With The Dragan Tattoo, Game of Thrones, John Grisham, etc. etc, People in general don’t talk about classic literature. There’s a simple reason for that – it’s not interesting or relevant to the majority of people.

            I’m more interested in teaching students HOW to read, not WHAT to read. I watched my three kids go thru high school with the same list of dull books that fail to inspire or educate. It’s pure “read these pages and then the teacher will tell you what they REALLY mean”. The Scarlet Letter, A Tale of Two Cities, Frankenstein, Chaucer, The Iliad, Odsyssey… stuff that few teenagers in 2013 can get anything from.

          4. Doug Ross

            Here’s the results of a recent survey of the the books people pretend to have read the most :


            Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
            Ulysses by James Joyce
            Moby-Dick by Herman Melville
            War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
            The Bible
            1984 by George Orwell
            The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien
            The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
            Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
            Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
            Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace
            Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
            To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
            Fifty Shades of Grey by E.L. James
            Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
            Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky
            Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte
            Great Expectations by Charles Dickens
            Harry Potter (series) by J.K. Rowling
            A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens

        2. Brad Warthen Post author

          Let’s see, using that list:

          Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen — read it more than once
          Ulysses by James Joyce — never read it, but have read Dubliners and Portrait of the Artist
          Moby-Dick by Herman Melville — started it multiple times, enjoy the opening, but always bog down after they go to sea, which is odd. Got an A+ on the six-weeks (essay) test, since we had discussed it to death
          War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy — nope
          The Bible — not all the way through, to my shame
          1984 by George Orwell — read it many times; it’s awesome
          The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien — read it as an adult, enjoyed it, didn’t get as into it as people who start reading it younger
          The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald — read it
          Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy — I think I was supposed to read it in school, didn’t get far into it
          Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger — read it, but it’s not a cult thing for me
          Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace — not even familiar with it
          Catch-22 by Joseph Heller — read it over and over and wrote many essays about it in school
          To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee — read it several times
          Fifty Shades of Grey by E.L. James — no interest in ever reading it
          Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte — nope
          Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky — oh, yeah. Probably THE great novel, next to Huck Finn
          Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte — read it a couple of times
          Great Expectations by Charles Dickens — I THINK I read it in school
          Harry Potter (series) by J.K. Rowling — the first three books or so
          A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens — nope, which everyone tells me is a crime

          1. Brad Warthen Post author

            Two titles seemed really out of place on that list — Infinite Jest (of which I had not even heard) and Fifty Shades of Grey.

            To paraphrase Sean Connery in The Untouchables — who would claim to have read those, who had not?

          2. Silence

            Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen – nope
            Ulysses by James Joyce – nope
            Moby-Dick by Herman Melville – In high school
            War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy – didn’t finish
            The Bible – parts of it
            1984 by George Orwell – in high school
            The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien – yup!
            The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald – high school
            Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy – nope
            Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger – in high school
            Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace – nope
            Catch-22 by Joseph Heller – in high school
            To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee – 9th grade
            Fifty Shades of Grey by E.L. James – nope
            Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte – read Wuthering Heights instead
            Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky – yup
            Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte – in high school
            Great Expectations by Charles Dickens – middle school
            Harry Potter (series) by J.K. Rowling – yup
            A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens – middle school

  8. Burl Burlingame

    Parnassus Books is pretty well known among bookshop operators — because it was a start-up AFTER the big-box bookstores killed the MomandPop bookstores in Memphis, and then went out of business themselves, leaving Memphis bookstoreless.

  9. Steve Gordy

    Of course, Anne Patchett was already a well-known author when she started Parnassus Books. It helps if you have a following wind when you get into another line of business.

    1. David Carlton

      I was a bit bemused that Brad doesn’t know who Ann Patchett is; clearly, he doesn’t read recent stuff.

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        I certainly do not. How could I? There’s so much in line ahead of it.

        First, I haven’t touched the classics — even translated into English. I have a copy of The Odyssey (or is it the Iliad) on a shelf downstairs, and haven’t found the time.

        I still have some of Shakespeare’s works to read. I haven’t touched Faulkner since giving up on him in college. Beyond Crime and Punishment and Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky remains unexplored. The only Fitzgerald I’ve read is The Great Gatsby and a book of short stories, long ago. The only thing by Steinbeck I ever made it through was Of Mice and Men a retelling of Malory’s Morte d’Arthur — and I won’t let myself see the classic film version of Grapes of Wrath until I’ve read the book.

        I’ve read some Conrad, but not enough.

        I’ve read nothing by Proust, Hugo or any of those other foreign coves. As for slightly less-well-known writers who were alive in the time of Hemingway and Fitzgerald — Ford Madox Ford, John Dos Passos — fuggedaboudit.

        Oh, and for those who think I only think of dead white guys, allow me to say that I feel bad that all I’ve read of Austen is Pride and Prejudice, which I thought was great, and while I really enjoyed Wuthering Heights, I’ve read nothing else by the Brontes.

        I could go on and on, but this litany is starting to depress me.

        As for living writers… I’ve very much enjoyed the past work of John le Carre and Martin Cruz Smith, but they haven’t produced anything I really liked recently. As for some of the more “literary” authors of the past generation, I’ve found Updike and John Irving highly disappointing. I couldn’t get into Salman Rushdie’s stuff at all, though I did enjoy meeting him and hearing his lecture at USC several years back.

        That’s fiction. I have read and enjoyed a number of current authors writing biography and other forms of history, but recent fiction hasn’t interested me.

        Given the fantastic stuff that I know I’ll probably never get to, I’m afraid Ann Patchett isn’t near the top of my list, or even on it. I’ve heard of some of her works — Bel Canto, Run, The Patron Saint of Liars — but her name has never registered on me, possibly because I’ve never made a note to myself to read them.

        Were I to live 1,000 years, I might eventually get to her. But I don’t think that’s going to happen.

      2. Brad Warthen Post author

        I don’t want to leave y’all with the impression that I don’t get to current stuff because I’m so busy with great stuff from the past.

        The dirty little secret is that I spend far, far, far, far too much of the limited time life affords me for reading in a rather wasteful exercise — rereading the stuff I’ve enjoyed in the past, rather than broadening my horizons reading stuff that is new to me.

        On the high end, I’ve probably read Crime and Punishment two or three times (in chunks at a time), and the Grand Inquisitor portion of Brothers Karamazov at least as many times — but haven’t gotten to The Idiot. And I’ve lost count on my favorites among Mark Twain’s books.

        But truth be told, I’m far more likely to reread Patrick O’Brian, or far more lowbrow stuff such as Stranger in a Strange Land.

        A glance at the really dogeared books on my shelves would not do me credit…

      3. Kathryn Fenner

        I have not read Ann Patchett, yet, though her books are on my shelf, but she’s pretty well known, Brad….

  10. Rose

    My husband loves reading on his ipad. I can’t stand it, though I understand the appeal of having multiple books in one package. I don’t read much fiction. I generally prefer thick, footnoted history tomes, which is why I’m not reading much while chasing a 6yo. However, I keep buying books, waiting for the day when I can read in peace! My son LOVES bookstores. He knows if there’s one thing he can talk Mommy into buying, it’s a book. Or two or three.

    I agree with Kevin’s comment. I’m often frustrated at the lack of the classics in the physical stores.

  11. Mark Stewart

    Powell’s Books in Portland, Ore.

    Best place every for a dreary, rainy climate. One could get lost in there and spend days upon days just reading one’s way through the stacks – randomly. If anyone visits PDX, stop by Powells with a few hours blocked off.

  12. Ralph Hightower

    I loaned my paperback copy of Frank Herbert’s “Dune” to a friend. He said that he was reading it in the bathtub when it fell in the water.
    I bought another copy of Dune and also bought a few backups in the years.

      1. Silence

        I am Paul.
        Paul I am.
        Do you like the Spice Melange?
        I do not like the Spice Melange, I do not like it, Paul I am.
        Would you like it here, or there?
        I would not like it here or there, I would not like it anywhere.
        Would you like it with the Fremen? Would you like it in a great house?
        I would not like it with the Fremen, I would not like it in a great house.
        Would you like it on Arrakis? Would you like it with a sandworm?
        I would not like it on Arrakis, I would not like it with a sandworm. Not with the Fremen, not in a great house, not on a heighliner, not with the Kwisatz Haderach, I would not like it here or there, I do not like it anywhere.

          1. Silence

            You do not like spice.
            SO you say.
            Try it! Try it!
            And you may.
            Try spice and you may I say.

            If you will let me be,
            I will try spice.
            You will see.

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