Sunday, January 15, 2012

A Modern Epic

In my last post, I mentioned visiting a bookstore near Columbia, and I need to expound on that.  For me, visiting a bookstore is an involved experience. It’s less than a casual pop-in, less than a desire to get warm from the cold outside or to distract myself from boredom (although those can be contributing factors to the visit). In addition to (or perhaps in conjunction with) visiting literary landmarks of New York, I have developed other inexpensive goals for myself before I embark on the potentially-brief life of an underpaid, full-time freelance writer in Herald Square.*

Among these goals are ideas for documenting the ridiculous number and variety of dogs in New York City, the strange things that people carry (the other night we spotted a man carrying a furry stuffed animal (bear?  Moose? Fozzie?) that was sporting a magic hat pulled straight from Fantasia), great coffee shops of the non-Starbucks variety.  And, the greatest goal of all, the epic search for the best independent bookstore in the city.**

This will be no easy task.  First of all, it’s a big city; that goes without saying.  While I have done some Google researching and found some helpful articles to guide me, such as this one from New York Magazine, some of the best may be undiscovered by travel guides and even local advocates of small business. Also, “best” is relative.  Upon meeting Jake, my friend Jenna’s boyfriend, the other night, I was explaining to him my quest.  Interested (because, really, who wouldn’t be?), he asked, “What makes a worthy independent bookstore?”  Excellent question, sir, excellent question.

The next day, I formulated my criteria for a good bookstore***:
  1. First impressions are important; the store should have a unique, clever, yet not too-cutesy name.
  2. A good indie bookstore should create a comfortable browsing atmosphere.  The store should allow me to idly look at books without making me feel pressured to buy something.  No crowding salespeople. Yes, I want to support the independent bookstore, but I shouldn’t feel guilty if I don’t.  If I like your store, I will buy something because I want to see the bookstore succeed, not because you guilt me into it (after all, guilt trips are the domains of families, not bookstores).
  3. A knowledgeable, approachable staff is important.  Since the independent bookstore isn’t typically a high-traffic area, the one or two members who are working usually sit behind the counter, reading.  As opposed to big chains such as my former employer Borders, booksellers are discouraged from reading behind the counter because it appears unhelpful or disinterested to the customer, I like to see the staff at an indie bookstore reading.  After all, the staff should like to read, should feel passionate about books, and should be able to give suggestions based not only on bestsellers but on their personal tastes and, hopefully, slightly eclectic literary passions. Moreover, they should want to be interrupted from their current read, should want to help the customer and offer suggestions because that allows them to talk about the books.
  4. Correspondingly, a good independent bookstore will feature books and staff picks, and plenty of them, complete with the little cards that describe why the customer should read the book.  These written advertisements of the books should be personal in nature, an honest reflection of the staff’s experience with the book instead of the trite, vague summary offered on the book jacket.  However, it should still be detailed enough to entice, especially because these suggestions should not be bestsellers; I can read about those in a recent paper or in any bookstore.  Give me this store’s character!
  5. The store should have good displays, visually appealing and easy to navigate.  I enjoy a good thematic display in the center of the aisle, but I also enjoy an unusual display, one that diverges from the expected “current issues” or “new paperbacks” selections.  Often, I go in just to browse, with no intention for a specific title, so introduce me to new ideas and reads!
  6. While I enjoy the unique displays, if I am in search of a particular title or genre, I should know where to go; sections should be clearly marked and easy to navigate.
  7. Obviously, a good selection is important (though I still lean toward atmosphere for deciding which bookstore most appeals to me).  Even better, I like when a store has a good general selection but also one section in which it specializes – obscure cookbooks, quirky independent poetry, etc. A section of current literary journals is also important; it shows that the store is committed to emerging writers and art. A used books section is also a huge plus in my financially-deficient book (no pun intended).
  8.  I’m a sucker for interesting stationery, too, so a good stationery and quirky gift section is appreciated.
  9. The unique details.  No formula exists for the perfect atmosphere, but unexpected and personal elements are important, and those details all contribute to the whole:  random and mismatched chairs for previewing material, free coffee, the smell of said free coffee mixed with aging pages, creaking floorboards, interesting ceiling tiles or soft lighting, floor-to-ceiling shelves arranged in a cozy maze that makes it impossible not to explore its titles, etc. 
  10. Finally, the store should find some way to convey its dedication to books, ideas, reading, culture, and the like.  Some stores are more successful at this than others: they have exceptional displays or staff suggestions, they’re arranged more creatively than others, they feature unique editions.  I think my favorite is the store that is not only aware of its “booknerdiness” but fully and lovingly embraces it.
This goes without saying, but huge chains are also excluded from the search – no Barnes and Nobles or Books-a-Millions allowed.  Local chains are permitted, as they usually develop from successful independent bookstores, but in those cases, I’d rather seek out the original store.

Of course, this quest is fraught with the danger of temptation: to explore a bookstore and not to buy?!?  Odysseus’s Sirens had nothing on the lure of books, in my opinion.

The criteria have been established. Thus, the Epic Indie Bookstore Search commences. 

*Yep, had the interview Wednesday, got the job Thursday.  It basically consists of researching, summarizing, and editing paragraphs about state parks for a developing series of state park iPhone and Android apps; the company is called Parks by Nature.  It’s not the most exciting job, but it could lead to other opportunities, even if it’s only purpose is to be listed on my résumé.   
**Because of its epic-ness, powerful and relevant song suggestions for a playlist that should accompany this grand quest are gladly accepted.
***Criteria are subject to change and caprice.

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