The one thing the “everything store” can’t sell

The one thing the “everything store” can’t sell

An author’s cross-country road trip leads him to dozens of independent bookstores … and the answer to his “pandemic gap.”

Guest Blog Post by Mason Engel, Writer and Documentarian

Why should you shop at an indie bookstore?

Amazon is usually cheaper, faster, and easier. In a purely commercial competition, ole Jeff has been wearing the title belt for years. How, then, have indie bookstores survived? Why do people give them their business?  Why should we all try to buy our books locally?

You should shop indie because more of your money will stay in the community. You should shop indie because it’s better for the environment. You should shop indie because local businesses employ local people.

Mason Engel

Mason Engel

All great reasons, but a year ago, I was feeling trapped by all the shoulds in my life. Another thing I was supposed to do, another box to check. So I started asking myself a different question.

What do I want?

Twelve months ago, the answer was building in me. More than I wanted Air Pods or an Xbox or a new lens for my camera, I wanted to feel like myself. I wanted to connect. I wanted to exist in the world and love people and be loved. I wanted everything I’d been missing during my pandemic-induced isolation, everything the “everything store” couldn’t sell.

The bookish road trip that changed my life

When I’ve needed answers in my life, I’ve always turned to books. And the road. In 2019 when I was contemplating giving up on my writing, I took a cross-country road trip to 50 independent bookstores in 50 days (you can read about that road trip—and what it turned into—here). In the summer of 2020 when I was trying to fill the gap in myself left by the pandemic, I hit the road yet again, this time with my camera guy, circling the East Coast to interview dozens of indie booksellers.  If Amazon couldn’t supply me with what I was looking for, I theorized, maybe the indies could. My theory was proven through and through. After speaking with scores of booksellers around the country, I’ve realized five ways indie bookstores fill my pandemic gap.

Filling the pandemic gap #1: Human interaction

I must have gotten about a million “Thank you for your order” emails in the past year and a half, each time from an auto-responder pulling my name from a database. It was a parody of gratitude. I didn’t feel acknowledged; I felt dismissed, anonymous.

When I walked into bookshops on the road, I experienced something different. I was greeted. I was seen by a bookseller.  I was talked to. Whether I was engaged with offers of help or left to browse on my own, I had a shared experience with a person in a physical environment. After so many months of quarantine, this simple interaction made me feel like a person again.

Maybe it’s their typically smaller size, or maybe it’s the common bookish interest that unites everyone under their roof. Whatever it is, there’s something about being in an indie bookstore that makes me feel closer to my fellow humans, and I value that something now more than ever.

Filling the pandemic gap #2: Children’s programming

I was killing time in Los Angeles before lunch with a friend, and I found a picnic table to get some work done. It was next to a playground. My secluded table soon became a crossroads. A little boy with a fudge pop in his mouth bypassed three empty tables on his way to sit at mine. A little girl leaned over my laptop while I was answering emails and held out the palms of her muddy hands like some kind of offering. And somehow, my work felt easier. I felt lighter. I felt connected, and not just in the way I do during an interaction with an adult. It sounds corny, but I felt connected in a much deeper way, like, to our whole species, to the whole circle of life.

The vast majority of indie bookshops around the country place a great deal of importance on their children’s programming. They do storytime. The booksellers will get down on their knees in the kids’ section. The result is a domestic, “third place” kind of feeling, made more genuine by the booksellers’ obvious passion for spreading literacy and education and opportunity to our young people. By shopping at these places, I become a small part of that mission, and that fills me up.

Filling the pandemic gap #3: Book clubs

It’s hard to hate someone when we really understand them, and it’s impossible to really understand anyone on the internet. Throw in the pseudo-anonymity of most social networking sites, and it’s no wonder compassionate discussions are hard to come by online.

Compare that to sitting across the table from someone. Compare a deeply personal Facebook argument to a discussion that centers on a book, on a depersonalized thing, on a bridge that connects one person to another.

And then forget about politics and think about fiction. Think about the co-creative process of inhabiting a story with another reader. Think about hearing their interpretation and perspective, and peering deeper and with more clarity into them than you could with any round of 20 questions. In cohabiting with someone in a fictional world, you learn how to love them in the real world.

This is the deep kind of conversation I had been hungry for, and indie bookstores offer it up every month, every week, every meeting of a book club.

Filling the pandemic gap #4: Author events

It seems as though every few months, scientists make some new discovery about how big the universe is. Those discoveries are cool, but they also water a seed of insignificance in me. During the pandemic, this seed took root. I’m just a guy on a planet, some grain of sand on an infinite cosmic beach. That smallness is scary, so I try to remember that, on that beach, I’m not alone.

When I’m part of a bigger movement or idea or subculture, however, it’s impossible to feel small. It shouldn’t matter—in the grand scheme of things, what’s the difference between me alone and me with 20 other people?—but it does matter. I feel significant because I’m connected, and after feeling cut off and insignificant for the past year and a half, I need that.

So why convene at an indie bookstore? Why for an author event? These gatherings are defined by a shared interest, and they give us an excuse to feel close to our fellow humans. That closeness, I’ve discovered, is more valuable to me than two-day shipping.

Filling the pandemic gap #5: Community involvement

Professor Ryan Raffaelli of Harvard Business School has studied the resurgence of indie bookstores for years, and has neatly packaged the indie value proposition into three C’s: curation, convening, and community. Enmeshed in their neighborhoods, towns, and cities, indie bookstores don’t just keep a pulse on community goings-on; they’re part of the pulse.

I think of it like going to grandma’s house for dinner versus going to a restaurant. Even if the waiter tracks your eating history and gives you the perfect recommendation, it’s never going to be grandma’s cooking. Because home isn’t an ingredient you can buy at the store. Above I used the word “domestic” to describe a local bookshop. This is what I meant. It’s not a drag-and-drop operation. It’s custom-tailored to you. It’s part of your community, and it offers something special because of that.

That something special, I decided, throughout my bookstore road trip to dozens of these home-like places, was something the pandemic had taken from me. Now, I’m trying to get it back.

So … why should you shop at indie bookstores?

In my road-trip documentary, The Bookstour, I haven’t tried to answer that question. My film is not about logic and “should”. The booksellers I interviewed touch on these pro-local arguments, but our conversations go deeper than that. Past the shop-indie infographics and guilt-tripping local fanatics. They took me to the powerful, unexpected heart of the “why shop indie” question. Now, it doesn’t matter why I should shop indie. I do it because I want to, because indies offer something I need. All I ask of you is to consider whether you need it to.

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