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The gem that is the independent bookstore

After speaking about healthcare at the University of Iowa on Thursday, President Obama made a surprise visit to a small, independent bookstore in Iowa City called Prairie Lights. There, he bought books for his daughters and his press secretary, telling reporters that once upon a time, that bookstore was his favorite place to peruse reading material. After purchasing the books, Obama told a handful of customers that they have a “wonderful bookstore,” then made his way out.

While reading this story on The Washington Post’s website, I was reminded of how special independent bookstores really are. And I mean “special” in the dictionary definition sense of the word: “readily distinguishable from others of the same category.” Step inside an independent and you immediately feel charmed, as if you’ve set foot in a place that genuinely wants you there, that invites you to linger for hours, pull up a chair and eventually meander out with a treasure in your hands.

I can’t deny that I’ve patronized the larger chain bookstores (and we all know who I’m talking about…). I go there solely for convenience’s sake – when, for example, I need a quick gift for a forgotten birthday and there’s not an independent bookstore in sight. But when I have the luxury to spend a couple of hours unearthing my next literary gem, when I want to feel at once anonymous and like I’m part of a club, I seek out the independent.

Many would tell you that the independent bookstore is becoming – or perhaps has already become – a thing of the past. We’ve all heard the story: e-books, e-readers and the broader digitization of literature are bad, bad, bad news for those who sell physical books in a physical space, not to mention if you’re competing with mammoth national entities. But the appeal for many others in the industry is great – books are made more accessible to a wider net, and they’re also made cheaper. Who wants to exert the effort to go out and purchase a book for more than they can get it in their slippers while in bed?

It’s not a rhetorical question, so I’ll go ahead and answer – me! I’m one of the (dwindling?) few who delights in holding a book in my hands, flipping through the pages, running my fingers over the jacket before I choose to buy it. That sensation – the cool, crisp, unspoiled covers, the scent of the black ink wafting out as I fan the pages – is visceral. I’d gladly pay a few extra bucks to achieve that experience, an experience I miss sorely when awaiting the FedEx delivery guy to toss my precious book on the front doorstep like a sack of potatoes.

Born and raised in Denver, I often accompanied my father and my sister to the locally famous Tattered Cover Book Store, housed in a two-story red brick building and furnished with worn-in chairs, antique lighting fixtures, and a fireplace. My sister and I would lose ourselves amid the endless rows of shelves towering above us. She’d head straight for Ann M. Martin’s The Baby-Sitters Club series, while I gravitated toward Choose Your Own Adventure novels. We’d almost always leave with a book in hand, our bookshelves at home about to get that much tighter on space.

In August of 2004, I moved near a small town south of San Jose called Morgan Hill. My first weekend there, temperatures soared above 100 degrees Fahrenheit and I wondered, what have I gotten myself into? I drove along downtown Morgan Hill’s main drag, seeking relief from my un-air-conditioned apartment, when I stumbled upon BookSmart. Who knew such a small town could house such an excellent bookstore? Inside, a vast array of books, gifts and a café – that served ice cream, I should add – greeted me. From that day on, whenever I craved rejuvenation, I’d head to BookSmart.

Now, living in San Francisco, I’m lucky enough to have a sweet, quaint independent bookstore right down the street, Christopher’s Books. Wooden floors, low shelves, an edited selection of books and a street corner location. It’s beautiful.

I don’t know where my next move will take me. But it’s my sincere hope that wherever I end up, the independent bookstore will meet me there.


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