On Saturday, on my way out of Home Depot in American Fork (Utah), I saw something which surprised and delighted me: a Barnes and Noble bookstore. I had never seen it there before, and technically it’s not there now, but I wasn’t hallucinating. It’s “coming soon,” opening in “winter 2024.” This inspires a new year’s bookbuying resolution or two, in which I’d love for you to join me.
I welcome the new arrival. Like the arrival years ago of Home Depot in American Fork and Lowe’s across the street in Lehi, its proximity means I will expend less time and fuel traveling to Orem or wherever else. That means, in theory, more money to buy books and more time to read them. There’s a tiny environmental impact too.
However, silver clouds have dark linings. For me this silver cloud has two: one from the past, nostalgic and not very useful in the present, and one for the not-too-distant future, which you and I can do something about.
Hence my resolution. You’re welcome to share it, once I’ve explained, which is after some related chatter, er, context.
The Ghost of Bookstores Past
Years ago, Barnes and Noble was my second choice among the major bookstore chains. It was superior to B. Dalton Bookseller (which Barnes and Noble bought in 1987 and closed in 2010) and Waldenbooks (which Borders acquired in 1995 and liquidated in 2011) — but I much preferred Borders until that chain went bankrupt in 2011.
I mention these bits of corporate history to illustrate that even the big bookstore chains can struggle to survive, then finally die. It’s popular — and probably just — to blame Amazon for a lot of that in the last two decades or so, but bookstores died before Amazon too. Remember the 1998 film You’ve Got Mail, in which Tom Hanks’ Fox Books, the “big bad chain store” opens on the Upper West Side near Meg Ryan’s lovely and distinctive The Shop Around the Corner, and hers quickly goes out of business? It was already a familiar pattern by then.
The Mind of David Present
Let me clarify a few things, so you know what’s going on in my head (on this theme at least):
I’m fond of You’ve Got Mail. I’ve watched it many times. For that matter, I like The Shop Around the Corner, on which it is loosely based, and She Loves Me, another spin-off, is one of my favorite Broadway musicals.
I buy a lot of books and other things from Amazon. To someone who once tramped from bookstore to bookstore in search of the books for which, ahem, I was searching, Amazon is a magical place. To what degree it’s a dark magic is debatable, I suppose.
I sell my books on Amazon, though not exclusively there, and Amazon has helped a lot of indie authors enormously with its print-on-demand (POD) and e-book services, among others.
My favorite destination bookstores are, in this order, Powell’s City of Books in Portland, Oregon, and the Strand Book Store in New York City (Manhattan). The Barnes and Noble flagship store in Manhattan deserves honorable mention. I had favorites in Ann Arbor, Michigan (the Borders flagship store), and Cambridge, Massachusetts (Wordsworth Books) but . . . alas.
Finally — you’ll see the relevance shortly — I’ve dropped my share of dollars at Deseret Book, a chain well known to members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons, as we’re not supposed to call ourselves anymore) — and more than a few dollars at the discount chain Deseret Book now owns, Seagull Book.
So that first black lining, the historical one, is essentially this: Barnes and Noble reminds me that I miss Borders. But that is a small matter. Here is the larger one.
HideAway in Plain Sight
American Fork already has a bookstore of which I am fond: HideAway Books on Main Street. I had a book signing there early last month, and I spend a certain amount of time through the year, browsing the used books. Most of the collection is used, though you’ll find some new, cheap classics and a section of new books by local authors (including me).
One of my favorite things about HideAway Books is that the Classics section is right at the front, and the classics move. Folks from private and charter schools in the area walk in and empty the shelves on a regular basis. If that doesn’t warm your heart . . .
HideAway has been there for a few years — with big signs saying “Books” — and all the people who showed up for my book signing were local. About half of them either hadn’t realized there was a bookstore there, despite driving past it often, or knew it was there but had never walked through the door. I’ve overheard a lot of customer conversations to that effect when I was browsing too.
When I asked Heidi Rowley, the owner of HideAway Books, for a couple of photos of her store, I invited words too, and she sent some:
“As a small bookshop, without the benefit of algorithms and marketing millions, we have to stand out in other ways. We strive for individualized customer experiences. . . . Some will try to compare us to [Barnes and Noble]. However that is like comparing a hometown mom and pop restaurant to McDonalds. One is comfortable and warm, while the other is predictable and standardized. They both have their place, but it sure would hurt our souls to only have the predictable places as an option.”
I see Barnes and Noble as more of an Olive Garden than McDonalds, but Heidi’s point is well made.
It Takes the Right Humans
There really is a reliable part of the small bookshop experience which you might get at a big chain store like Barnes and Noble, but you usually won’t, and Amazon’s and others’ algorithms are poor nonhuman substitutes for it. Again and again I’ve overheard the staff at HideAway ask (if patrons didn’t already tell them) what kind of books they like, or what they’re looking for. After listening to the answer — a key part of this process — the staff member talks patrons through the possibilities.
A thought strikes: As often as I’ve overheard this and delighted in it, at HideAway and elsewhere, it’s been practically forever since I asked bookstore staff to recommend my next book. I should try it again myself.
Last year on a visit to Manhattan, I discovered a fine little bookshop in Greenwich Village called Three Lives & Company. I’ll definitely go back, but my point at the moment is the following anecdote, because what I’m saying works at small bookshops in the big city too.
Three Lives and Company
My son and I were browsing the shelves — fruitfully — at Three Lives & Company when an elderly man walked in the door. In the small talk which ensued, the customer expressed his pleasure that the bookseller (one of the owners, I think) was back at work after some sort of medical absence. Then he told the owner he was there looking for his wife’s next book.
“What has she enjoyed lately?” (It’s an obvious question, and I may misremember the words.)
“She just read [a recent book] and liked it a lot.”
The owner did not immediately list more books like it, which the shopper’s wife might enjoy, not that there’s anything wrong with that. Instead, he raised his game to an even higher level.
“Did she like it because of [this — I forget what] or because of [that — I forget this too]?” Not only did the man know the answer to that question — I hope for my daughter to find a man like that someday — but he was also able to clarify what his wife appreciated in the book.
Then the owner had some recommendations. I wanted to applaud, but I didn’t. I bought books, which I’d have done anyway, but I bought them more appreciatively.
My Bookbuying Resolution (The Ghost of Book Shopping Future)
We’ve come to that resolution I mentioned at the beginning.
Bookbuying Resolution Part One: When I Buy Books in Person
Here’s the first part of my first bookbuying resolution. When I’m in a mood to buy books in person — locally — my first stop will be HideAway Books, my hometown indie mostly-used bookshop. Barnes and Noble will be my second stop.
If you’re not in American Fork, you could do the same with the local indie bookshop of your choice.
Bookbuying Resolution Part Two: Buying Books Online
I had already mostly shifted my online book purchases, where possible, from Amazon and (less frequently) Barnes and Noble to Powell’s. This includes gift card purchases for people I know will find something to love at Powell’s.
Here’s the second part. This year, where possible, I will turn to online booksellers in this order:
- HideAway Books — They have nearly their entire collection online.
- Bookshop.org — For virtually any new book available at bookstores anywhere. If you choose a favorite participating bookstore here, that bookstore will get 30% of the proceeds. If you don’t, 10% of the proceeds will go into a pool that is shared among member bookstores. Again, I’ve chosen HideAway for this. You could choose HideAway or any of hundreds of others, including Pioneer Book in Provo and The King’s English in Salt Lake City, two of my favorite Utah bookshops.
- Powell’s City of Books
- Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and the rest
This applies to printed books. For e-books I’m still pretty much locked into Amazon/Kindle, and for audiobooks, for me, it’s Audible (which is also Amazon). Most of the alternatives are very big too, but there is another option I haven’t yet explored: Libro.fm. (This specific link supports HideAway Books, but there are many bookstores you might choose; it seems to resemble Bookshop.org.)
Why I Haven’t Yet Mentioned Deseret Book and Seagull Book
Utah readers especially may wonder why I haven’t mentioned Deseret Book and Seagull Book (a Deseret Book subsidiary) in my bookbuying priorities. These mostly-Utah chains sell products, including a lot of books, aimed at members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons) — which includes me. I’ve dropped a fair number of dollars there over the years, mostly on books.
(If you want an LDS book, start at Seagull, the discount store. If they don’t have it, go to Deseret and pay more, usually.)
We have both chains in American Fork. So I’d need a pretty good reason not to list them among American Fork’s bookstores.
The downtown Salt Lake City Deseret Book flagship store used to be huge, and its general book collection was large. It wasn’t tightly focused on LDS books, though they were prominent, of course. (Deseret Book publishes a lot of those.) But in recent years Deseret Book has evolved into more of a lifestyle boutique that sells books, instead of a credible bookstore. This was a shorter evolution for its smaller branches.
“Content and Lifestyle Products”
They’re still excellent places to go for LDS books and a few others. But here are the first two paragraphs at Deseret Books’ About Us page, as of the date of this post:
“Since 1866, Deseret Book Company has been the market leader in the providing content and lifestyle products to support members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints through its retail and publishing imprints. Deseret Book is committed to creating and offering resources to build faith, strengthen families, and promote personal virtues.
“Deseret Book’s purpose is to provide quality products that build faith, strengthen homes and families, ennoble personal virtues, and offer practical advice to religious and non-religious alike.”
As I said, a Latter-day Saint lifestyle boutique, not that there’s anything wrong with that. I’m all for faith, families, and personal virtues. But in those two paragraphs the word book only appears in the company name. So for LDS books I often go to Deseret or Seagull. For books generally, I don’t give them a thought.
Back to That Resolution
If you want to take a moment to review my resolution for the 2024 bookbuying year, I’ll wait. After that, I have a question or two.
- Would you care to join me?
- If so, would you care to share your personal version of my resolution (e.g. your local bookshops of choice, and feel free to include links)? I’d be happy to hear about that — in the comments, if you’re into that — and I’ll bet others would be too.
Final thought: I realize that buying books isn’t the only bookish activity that is crucial to our civilization. If you wonder what I’ve been reading lately, I took up that topic here (and I probably will again). Goodreads, which is also an Amazon thing now, will tell you what I’m currently reading.
Photo credits: HideAway Books and David Rodeback
From the Author
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