Earlier this week I learned that Edgartown Books was closing for good at the end of February. I’m sorry, yes, not least because Edgartown Books took enough interest in my novel, The Mud of the Place, to keep it in stock, but it’s sort of like mourning the death of the last survivor of World War I: one makes note of the passing, but life goes on pretty much unchanged. The war is long since over.
Bookstores were once the center of my life. From 1981 to 1985, I was the book and periodical buyer, and in effect the assistant manager, at Lammas Women’s Shop, the femininist bookstore in Washington, D.C. Lammas was part of a vibrant and far-flung network of feminist publishers, newspapers, magazines, printers, record distributors and record labels. That network in turn was connected to all sorts of independent bookstores and creative outlets, progressive, gay, African American — our common denominator was that none of us were being well served, or in many cases served at all, by mainstream publishing and bookselling.
When I moved to Martha’s Vineyard, Lammas was hands-down the best job I’d ever had. (My other best job was still in the future.) No surprise that I put in applications at both the island’s bookstores, one of which was Edgartown Books’ predecessor. At that point it was (I think) still called Unicorn Tales but would within a few years become Bickerton & Ripley — which was of course widely known as Bicker & Rip. Unicorn Tales never responded to my application. The other store did offer me a job. It paid $4/hour, which would go up to $4.25 after a training period. Lammas had been paying me what the owner was paying herself: $5.50/hour and my HMO membership. No, said the much richer bookstore when I tried to negotiate: a part-time position was out of the question.
I couldn’t afford to live on Martha’s Vineyard and eventually buy a car for $4/hour, so this marked both the end of my bookselling career and my introduction to island economics: there are plenty of full-time jobs that one can only afford to hold if one has a trust fund, rent-free accommodations, and/or a spouse who makes enough to pay the rent and keep the car running.
Nevertheless, I continued to carry the torch for independent bookstores. I knew from firsthand experience that books could change and even save lives; wasn’t it the booksellers who connected readers with books they sometimes didn’t know they were looking for? Bookstores organized readings and other book-related events. Bookstores introduced local writers to a wider audience. Bookstores were indispensable.
From at least the early 1980s on, indy bookstores were being seriously threatened by the rise of the big discount chains, Borders, Barnes & Noble, Crown, and others — and by the penchant of big commercial publishers to offer deep unpublicized discounts and other perks to the chains. At first it seemed that the general-interest indies were being hardest hit, the stores whose stock overlapped that of the chains but that couldn’t offer mega-discounts on best-sellers. But the tidal wave soon caught up with the specialty bookstores that served marginalized readers, not least because these stores (like Lammas and just about every feminist store I knew of) were seriously undercapitalized. When I set about promoting my novel, in 2008, fully 90 percent of the stores I’d known in my bookselling days were gone. Including Lammas.
One lasting lesson from my bookselling days was that for most people most of the time, convenience trumps commitment. Lammas was located across town from D.C.’s main shopping districts and workplaces: for many women, it meant a special trip, and rather than take the subway they’d pick up the book they were looking for at the nearest discount store or the gay bookstore near Dupont Circle. They’d come to Lammas for the books and the personalized service they couldn’t find anywhere else.
Thus I gradually fell out of the bookstore browsing habit. Through the mid-1990s, I was doing a lot of reviewing, so plenty of good books arrived unbidden in my p.o. box. Bicker & Rip was in Edgartown, which has been off my beaten path for almost all the years I’ve lived on Martha’s Vineyard, i.e., I’d have to make a special trip and then find a place to park. The more convenient store never had anything I was looking for: its fantasy/science fiction section looked like it had been bought by monkeys, and the women’s sections were jammed with the pop psych stuff beloved of New York publishers. Books from independent publishers and university presses were nowhere to be found — and in the fields I was most interested in, this was where the action was. When I went into the store at all, it was usually to buy notecards or wrapping paper.
Odd, perhaps, for a lifelong reader, I fell out of the reading habit while working on Mud and never got back into it. Why? I read for a living. The people I hung out with rarely talked about books; I don’t have a TV or follow the mainstream media so I didn’t know what “everybody” was talking about. Island bookstores had long since fallen off my psychic map. The serious and unsurprising side effect is that I forgot why I’d ever believed that writing was important. What the hell was I doing on the planet anyway?
Strange but true, it was getting on Facebook exactly a year ago that started to turn things around. Facebook is like an ongoing salon, its conversations made up of words and pictures. Pretty soon I was once again part of a world where words mattered. After a few months I started this blog: Yeah! I’m a word person again!
Then, in December, I got my first e-reader. Yes, it is screamingly ironic that my beloved Nooky was produced by Barnes & Noble, one of the mega-chains that helped kill independent bookselling. I’ve bought more books from Barnes & Noble in the last six weeks than I had in my whole previous life: for decades I wouldn’t be caught dead in any of those chain bookstores.
But now, for the first time in many years, I’m reading three books at once. And now that the world of e-books and e-publication has become part of my psychic map, I’m back to the long-haul writing. I know there are readers out there, and I believe that my words can reach them.
A very belated addendum, November 17, 2014: Edgartown Books reopened a few months after it “closed for good.” It’s still open today. Bunch of Grapes in Vineyard Haven moved across the street to what was most recently Bowl & Board. That was a couple of years ago. I still haven’t been in the new store. I hear that they’ve been a little more friendly to island authors since Mud came out, but island bookstores just aren’t on my psychic map.