The years pass, but the song remains the same.
In 1995 I moved to Columbia, SC. I had just moved to the US, got married and started an English degree at the University of South Carolina. I lived right beside Five Points, the cool, commercial hub beside the university neighborhood, and near a fabulous little indie bookstore named Volume One. I would constantly wander down after classes and browse the aisles. A few of the books on my bookshelves today still have a certain glow about them because I stumbled upon them in Volume One. When I discovered Salman Rushdie, I bought most of the rest of Rushdie's works at Volume One. Sadly, it was a short-lived love affair, as 18 months after I arrived Volume One closed. There was a big community wake, a storewide sale, and a party-of-sorts on the last day. Friends of the owners threw the party in celebration of their friends' bravery in following their dream and opening a bookstore. It seemed that half the university English department was there, as well as most of the people I knew from our neighborhood. My copy of Michael Dorris' underrated second novel, Cloud Chamber, which I scored that weekend, still evokes bittersweet memories.
Fortunately, there was another indie bookseller in town, and a venerable one too. The Happy Bookseller had been around for decades, and the only reason that I didn't shop there very often was that it was on the other side of town. Although I didn't drop by to browse frequently, I did reserve the special books that I needed to read the day they came out at Happy Bookseller. I vividly remember how cool the clear dust jacket on Thomas Pynchon's Mason & Dixon looked when I picked it up. Another still-beloved book I found there, unheralded, was Bharathi Mukherjee's The Holder of the World, which instigated another round of backlist special-ordering.
Fast forward to November 2008, and the Happy Bookseller has just closed, the victim of being too-near neighbors with not one but two large chain bookstores. I still visit Columbia often, but now there will be no great bookstore to browse through to discover the next unexpected gem, or reconnect with an author who's slipped off my radar. I'll miss the Happy Bookseller, but its loss will not affect me as much as the community of readers in Columbia. Where will earnest English majors discover non-canonical writers? Where will their professors stumble across the obscure foreign writers destined to win the Nobel Prize in twenty years time? Where will local readers discover the future great southern writers hawking their unheralded first novels from the trunks of their cars? These are the areas that chains simply don't carry. How are local authors ever supposed to make a name for themselves if they can't get into the big chainstore in the first place? How will avant-garde or experimental writers find an audience if the voracious and courageous readers who work at indies aren't there to discover them, and then enthusiastically handsell them to community members with a discerning taste in modern literature? How will local communities fare when the only option grad-students have is to order their research materials online, and send all those sales tax dollars out of state?
The closing of The Happy Bookseller is a sad day for readers in Columbia, SC, but maybe it will serve as a reminder to other communities to value their local independent stores (book- or otherwise), to make a point of supporting them even if they are on the other side of town, and to not take them for granted, assuming they'll always be there, because in these tight economic times it doesn't take much to push a store from vibrancy into history.
Parent, Bookseller, Gardener, Graphic Designer, Jack-of-many-trades
Bookseller @ Malaprop's Bookstore in Asheville