Opinion
 

Another one bites the dust: For bookstores, the Internet’s just part of the problem

On Friday Maple Street Book Shop will close its doors. Owner Gladin Scott says his iconic indie bookstore has been living on borrowed time for more than a year. I will be one of many New Orleanians who feel a special kind of “ain’t dere no more” emptiness as Scott locks up for the last time.

Like many longtime customers, I have fond memories of shopping there during my childhood and youth. My high school was a few blocks away, and the creaky wood-frame converted residence, with its room upon room of packed shelves, gave me a vision of the kind of life I wanted to lead. On more than a few occasions, I browsed, bought, and took my purchase to the original P.J.’s coffee — also on Maple Street — to delight in the special combination of sensuality and intellect offered by a book and a cup of coffee on a shaded patio.

C.W. Cannon

Little Free Library outlets scattered through New Orleans bespeak a local love of bound books — as independent bookstores die.

I must confess, however, that I haven’t been in the store much recently. That makes me complicit in the “demolition by neglect” that has driven the place under. So here I am already mourning a shop that I no longer seem to need in my life.

Sentimental nostalgia? I refuse to feel guilty about my grief. Indeed, I’ll wallow in the loss, just as I have wallowed over the years in the loss of Schwegmann’s, MacKenzie’s, K&B, and countless little mom-‘n’-pop restaurants, coffeehouses, bars, etc. (I still can’t bring myself to care about Hubig’s Pies).

Part of it can be chalked up to nothing more than the relentlessness of passing time. The empty or repurposed storefronts remind us that we’re getting older, that our lives are ebbing along with old-fashioned modes of retail. But the death of a bookstore raises other concerns — about the intellectual life of the city and, more specifically, about the way reading material is marketed.

Founded in 1964, Maple Street was, and for a few days remains, the city’s oldest independent bookstore. It’s true, of course, that other means of acquiring books — ordering online, in particular — are crowding out the old paradigm of a building with a door and rooms full of shelves for browsing. It also could be that reading habits are shifting away from books, into shorter, more graphic formats available digitally. And then there’s the deeper question about the future of reading in general.

Though it’s sad to lose a venerable matriarch like Maple Street, it is a joy to see other shops hanging on, many of them by promoting author events such as readings and signings. The best known are Octavia Books and Garden District Books, both Uptown, and Faulkner House Books in the Quarter. But there are many others. Most, like Maple Street, offer some combination of new titles, used books, rare books, and local focus. Blue Cypress Books is a few blocks from Maple Street.

My old neighborhood favorites, Librairie and Beckham’s in the French Quarter, are still trudging along. New establishments like Tubby and Coo’s, on Carrollton Avenue in Mid City, bring fresh personality to the enterprise by adopting a special focus — in their case, a variety of board games (another valiant effort to preserve oldie-but-goodie pastimes). Crescent City Books, on Baronne Street in the CBD, has gone the extra yard by re-publishing out-of-print local classics.

Meanwhile, in the 7th Ward, Community Book Center has announced its own struggle to stay afloat. The loss of this store would be potentially more damaging to the city’s cultural life since Vera Warren-Williams’ shop has specialized in African-American literature and culture, a niche not easily filled.

Scott gave many reasons for Maple Street’s terminal financial problems. One was the recent lack of blockbuster publishing events — by which I assume he means books on the scale of the Harry Potter phenomenon 20 years ago.

It’s a shame that neighborhood bookstores have to depend on that kind of product to keep the lights on, because, I admit, I’m not looking for international bestsellers when I shop locally. I’m one of those readers who will wait until the major publishing sensation is old enough to buy used, if I purchase it at all. I’m far more interested in obscure titles, perhaps local, but more than likely published by small presses with limited print runs.

Scott also mentioned a political effect that has lots of implications, especially for the bookstore with the famous slogan, “Fight the Stupids.” The “Fight the Stupids” bumper sticker has been around for decades, but never has its meaning been as sharply political as it is now. Scott said that many of his customers lean left, and have been so busy with political action since the election of Donald Trump that they have little time left for pleasure reading.

My guess is that, as the intellectual left swells and gets feisty, change can also be detected on the right. There was once a kind of Uptown political conservative who was also an avid reader and who found pleasure in intellectual engagement. These deeply read conservatives saw the history of ideas as a necessary foundation on which to base political arguments.

I think of the great Louisiana author Walker Percy, who was a customer as well as featured guest at Maple Street Books during his lifetime. He was a principled Catholic conservative as well as a practitioner of highly crafted literary fiction. But the new political configuration is taking shape along lines of educational attainment in unprecedented ways.

The driving energy of Trumpism is proudly anti-intellectual. Glorified blogs like Breitbart, Infowars, and Newsmax have edged out “establishment elites” like the Wall Street Journal and National Review. Soft propaganda like Bruce Tinsley’s syndicated comic strip, “Mallard Fillmore,” provides almost daily demonization of college faculty and their students. Trump’s challenge forming complete sentences — reminiscent, in its way, of his Republican predecessor Dubya Bush — is actually a selling point for his base. In this climate, “fight the stupids” takes on a partisan slant — and the “stupids” are fighting back with gusto.

The urgency of our political moment has effects on reading choices, too. Keeping up with the latest details of the Washington train wreck eats up time we might once have spent reading something else. The daily nail-biter even cuts into time for book-length reading of a political nature. (Jane Mayer’s recent “Dark Money: the Hidden History of the Billionaires behind the Rise of the Radical Right” is a must.) But at least reading news and commentary is still reading, even if it’s not between covers.

The steady erosion of the full-service, wide-spectrum, brick-and-mortar bookstore began way before the current panic gripping the nation. The evolution of my own habits as a reader are probably typical. For most of my youth and into young adulthood, I compulsively collected books, mostly used copies. The lower prices were a reason for that, but my literary tastes also played a role: People have been writing books for centuries, and at least a few masterpieces were drafted before my time.

One of the disasters for the book industry today is that the first 3,000 years of writing can now be got totally for free. I can lie in bed and, without even producing a credit card, get Homer, Voltaire, Melville, and Nietzsche on my device in seconds. I have a lot of this writing in bound editions in my house already — mostly purchased at used book stores — but they’re in a box in my attic somewhere and hard to dig out. My huge CD collection, incidentally, is also gathering dust in boxes; I just search YouTube for my old classical music favorites. The guilt-tripping argument — that I should continue paying for items that can be got for free in order to preserve literary or musical culture — goes only so far. Stravinsky is no longer drawing royalties; neither is Melville.

A much more contemporary challenge to the book business is the creative-writing industry — graduate MFA programs, online seminars and the like. It has pushed us toward a tipping point when there will be more writers than readers. The industry inclines students to read the latest lit mags and digital releases — i.e. their own work — but produces such a glut of it that fresh talent has a tougher time breaking through.

When it comes to living writers, whom should I be supporting? The latest literary stars? They’re doing fine without me. Sherman Alexie’s new book is out, a memoir. I know because the engines of promotion are in overdrive — on Morning Edition, on Fresh Air, in magazines and newspapers, the few of them that still have book sections.

I admire Alexie’s work, but I’d rather support writers who are not among the cluster of literary hotshots that commercial publishers have decided to declare “proven commodities” — a self-fulfilling classification if ever there was one.

The kind of work I’m looking for is more likely to be published by independent and university presses. There’s a small army of them these days, but by definition their strategies for marketing and promotion are limited. I’m not going to hear about their latest releases — even the best of them — with a piece of toast in one hand and an ear cocked toward the radio. Browsing in a bookstore opens me up to the happy accident of stumbling on a new title that’s worth checking out. But, frankly, I probably do more to preserve literary culture as a living practice if I go directly to independent publishers’ websites and order from there.

Fortunately, there are other signs of local literary life and community besides bookstores. In addition to the activities of our several universities, there’s WWNO’s weekly radio show, “The Reading Life,” on which host Susan Larson, interviews a broad range of authors. Local nonprofits like Antenna Works sponsor readings and online literary journals.

Literary interest can also be measured in the success of non-university affiliated creative writing courses for members of the community, such as those offered by the New Orleans Writers’ Workshop. Indeed, my experience with this kind of literary community has had a significant impact on my own attitudes about reading, writing, and publishing.

I used to complain that, as a professional reader and writer, I had very little time left over to devote to reading for pleasure. But then I figured something out: An unconscious valorization of literary success — i.e. commercial publication — was influencing my personal literary values. There is abundant literary and aesthetic worth in the student work I am obliged to spend lots of time reading. (The myth that the marketplace is truly meritocratic is just as alive in academic publishing.)

My outlook evolved further when I began teaching night courses for adult members of the community, rather than just college undergraduates. Some of the work was not only more interesting than what undergraduate English majors were coming up with, it was better than a lot of stuff that’s published.

The lesson for those who love reading is to try reading people you know personally. The practice of meeting in a room once a week to discuss each other’s work may revitalize your whole experience of literature, much more than catching up with the latest release by this week’s literary sensation. It doesn’t help bookstores, but it might revitalize your connection to good writing, as a living practice rather than as a spectator sport.

But reading your peers’ work and writing your own takes time, which I’m guessing you may not have much of. The reason most of us don’t while away an aimless hour perusing the shelves of an old bookstore is the same reason we don’t read or write as much as we think we’d like to. It’s a sign of a more troubling aspect of our era — the loss of our time, the daily count of the hours in the day that slowly add up to a life, the only one we get. Now that every minute is scheduled out so that we can meet our ever-expanding (and evermore poorly compensated) job responsibilities, we have no time for any kind of aimless wandering — in a bookstore, in our imaginations, or anywhere else.

That’s the tragedy, and it will take smarts and long-term political vision — not the latest short story collection — to possibly stem the tide. We might not be able to get the “stupids” to love reading, but maybe we can get them to agree that they would like to get paid more, work less, and thus have more time to choose what they want to do in the hours that are truly theirs. That would be a benefit to us all.

C.W. Cannon’s latest novel, “French Quarter Beautification Project,” is available at Maple Street Book Shop until June 30. It’s also available at Crescent City Books (and online).

Views expressed in the Opinion section are not necessarily those of The Lens or its staff. To propose an idea for a column, contact Lens founder Karen Gadbois.

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