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Schubart: Bookstores and Community

02/02/09 5:55PM By Bill Schubart
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(HOST) With a new bookstore in his town, recent author and commentator Bill Schubart has been thinking about the place of bookstores in our communities.

(SCHUBART) Small businesses like bookstores define and enrich a healthy community. I know because my town of Hinesburg just got one and it's changing my book-buying habits. You may remember the New Yorker cover last year where a person looking furtive and uncomfortable is standing on the sidewalk next to the "going out of business" sign in the local bookstore over which he lives. He is exchanging with the UPS driver an Amazon box for his signature.
 
The buying of a book is a rich allegory about community. We're now seeing and feeling the collapse of our own hyper-consumerism in which speed and money were thought to be the only essentials. Remember the expression time is money? Amazon has conquered both. They sell at deep discounts and carry or drop-ship everything in a few days. They offer an amazing service to the world, but undermine community.

Your local bookstore carries what it believes will be of interest to the community it serves. It hires local people and pays local rent and taxes. The staff reads and can talk about the books they sell. They host community events and book clubs and spend time with children learning to read. They will special order books to meet the diverse interests of their patrons. They may charge more for the books they stock but they make up for it with service.

This allegory applies to many aspects of community. Velveeta cheese is cheaper than the cheese made by Laini Fondiller off the grid in Westfield from goats she milks herself, but Laini's cheese is sublime.

The garden rake at Walmart is less than the one in your local hardware store and so on.
 
If all that counts is speed and money, we, like many areas in the country, must forego community. Perhaps it's because we in America are so new at civilization that money and speed are our benchmarks of success. But now that they have betrayed us, it may be time to rethink community. Warriors have always known that the fastest way to break the spirit of a people is to destroy their communal gathering places: their markets, cafes, churches, and repositories of arts and culture.
            
Consider the Italian tradition of passagiato where, after a leisurely meal, folks walk in their communities, stop to visit with friends in small cafes, visit a bookstore, bakery, or stop to enjoy a street concert.

Reading, like the preparing and serving of fresh local food, enjoying artful conversation over a glass of wine, or just strolling in a vibrant downtown should be savored slowly.

I'm willing to pay a small premium to sustain my community. When I want a new book, I'll buy the fifteen dollar copy at our local bookseller who hosts local authors and poets instead of ordering it online for twelve. I also want a hardware story, a grocery store, a restaurant and a café and I'm willing to pay a little extra for them.
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