09 February 2012

Dream Walking Through Bookstores

If there is one thing I know well, it is bookstores. I used to own one, and over the years I’ve probably visited another couple hundred, in many countries, not all English-speaking.

A few weeks ago I had the chance to stop in to three independent stores in just a few days... all owned by the same people, Paul Jaffee and Barney Brown, co-founders of Copperfield’s, in Sonoma County, California. You can find two Copperfield’s in Sebastopol where they began, and two in Petaluma. They’re also in Montgomery Village Santa Rosa, plus the downtowns of Napa, Healdsburg and Calistoga; altogether, eight iterations of the same store, each one different, including two that specialize in used and rare books.

I shopped and browsed for the same things in three Copperfield’s, and the experiences could hardly have been more different. The Calistoga store felt winter sleepy and somewhat empty, like the surrounding town. The Healdsburg store by contrast was crowded, compact and well stocked. The one in Napa had the deepest selection and put me into a fine book-induced dream state.

There’s always an interested mind behind any truly interesting bookstore. How can this be, you ask? After all, all new books bookstores draw on the same universe of currently published books. That’s where the interested mind comes in – both the customer’s and the book buyer’s. If you purchase science books and cook books, say, the store will stock more of these. If the manager happens to be obsessed with chess and travel, you’ll find more of those as well.

Local management at Copperfield’s clearly influences each store’s style and content. I found many of the same authors in each store, but there were differences. One store stocked one Lee Child thriller; another store carried more than a dozen of his titles, some in multiples.

Contrast this with online stores that endeavor to have everything you could ever want in one virtual space. That very comprehensiveness can be discouraging. When you have everything, you want nothing.

The pseudo-friendly algorithm will attempt to tailor the shopping experience to what you’ve liked in the past, but only a human, with all the subtlety of cultural interaction between not-quite strangers, can put in your hands exactly the book you wanted before you knew you wanted it. Here’s a toast to people over data-mining mathematics.

Another way I know a good bookstore is by the physical effect it has on me. Often people in bookstores fall into some kind of trance-like state as they wander around.

This cannot happen to people who work there. The best ones are constantly aware of books out of place or leaning over each other; listening for customers with questions (My all-time favorite remains: “Where is your non-fiction section?”); aware of music too faint or too loud; of the need for a break or a crack at lunch.

Having left day-to-day bookselling behind, now I too fall into that browsing trance. It’s not that I start bumping into things. It’s more like entering a smooth, stand-up dream, where each book, fiction or not, kicks off a new story. Minutes after walking in I’ve already visited wartime France, seen loggers clutching axes. I’ve checked out a few favorite authors, and thumb-flipped through the most beautiful islands of Greece.

Walkable bookstores charm, seduce, excite, challenge and educate the open-minded dreamer, especially so for some lucky children.

Which brings us to World Book Night, April 23. Hundreds of people will be giving away thousands of free books around the world that night, and I just learned that I will be one of them.

“Don’t gloat,” the welcome letter cautions, “if a friend or colleague didn’t get this email.” Perhaps they picked one of thirty titles that already had been taken to zero by other enthusiastic potential book-givers. Or they entered their email address incorrectly.

As it turns out, several people in the Mendocino area have been picked to give away books in April. Gallery Bookshop in Mendocino plans to have a meeting for these people so we can compare notes and share fears about walking up to complete strangers, asking something such as “Have you read THIS book?” and then handing it to them.

Like The Millionaire of vintage TV, we aim to make people happy readers, with no negative consequences. If only the rest of life could be that easy.


Copperfield’s home page...

World Book Night USA

World Book Night UK and Eire

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