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Spence Perry: Amazon's gain has been our loss

August 21, 2012|By SPENCE PERRY

Some think the end of the bookstore began in Washington County more than 20 years ago when Hatcher’s bookstore burned on West Washington Street.

It was a spectacular fire. I learned about it on the road from a picture in the New York Times. It brought an end to a wonderful book-selling tradition.

Others did not notice the erosion of book retailing until Borders shut its doors after a long and painful exit last year.

Regardless of when the realization hit, we are now at the point of “biblio-poverty.” The last representatives of an honorable trade include a small general bookstore at the local mall and a used-remainder bookstore on Dual Highway.

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Aside from a few specialized outlets — largely religious in nature — this is the remnant of the book trade in our midst. To find a decent full-service, widely-stocked bookstore, one must travel to Shepherdstown, W.Va., or Frederick, Md.

Lack of good bookstores is inconvenient, narrows channels of information and entertainment, and shuts off an opportunity for good conversation. All of this is much mourned and discussed.

However, there is a more serious and possibly even dangerous aspect to the shrinkage of the American book market, and particularly the demise of the independent bookseller.

Bookstore owners have traditionally been arbiters of new information. Not unlike a newspaper publisher or editor, they have served as brokers of new information to their communities. They have long had an enormous say as to what their cities and towns read.

This, in turn, has influenced what the locals think about politics, economics, fashion or cuisine (If you haven’t read about a new recipe in its historic and social context, you probably won’t try it).

In our own county, booksellers have chosen to stock books that led to integration, religious tolerance, economic progress and richer lives. Sometimes, they have exercised their discretion at considerable personal cost.

During the years of social conflict in the 1930s and again during the civil rights struggles of the 1960s, bookstore owners who carried books at odds with local views were beaten, and their stores were vandalized and burned. 

Among his other business pursuits, my father spent three decades in the book business. He owned a group of new, used and rare bookstores in the Southeastern states. His customers ranged from literary figures to the working poor. His headquarters stores were in Jacksonville, Fla., and were regarded as the best between Washington, D.C., and Miami.

During the 1940s and ’50s, he carried Lillian Smith’s “Strange Fruit,” dealing with interracial relations; Faulkner’s works (often banned in Southern locales during the period); and W.J. Cash’s “The Mind of the South,” a broad-brushed study of Southern life in the ’30s.

He was criticized by his friends at Rotary and the Ponte Vedra Club for carrying such anti-Southern “trash,” but while this sometimes hurt him, it never stopped him from ordering a title he thought might help his fellow citizens deal with coming realities.

“I always felt,” he once said when talking of his career as a bookseller, “that if I could just get the right book into the hands of the right person at the right time, I would have made a worthwhile contribution.”

This contribution is what we miss when independent bookstores close. While Amazon might be convenient and the discount department stores might sell for a great deal below list price, there is something important about having the chance to talk to someone who has read the book about what it offers.

Sometimes, when I walk by the former Borders, or by Jack Staley’s Barnwood Books, I am stunned by the magnitude of our loss and despair of a remedy for it.

Spence Perry, a resident of Fulton County, Pa., is active in Washington County affairs.


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