“Burn down your cities and leave our farms, and your cities will spring up again as if by magic; but destroy our farms and the grass will grow in the streets of every city in the country.” William Jennings Bryan

Monday, December 10, 2012

December 10, 2012

There are no bookstores in my area. They are all gone.

The last bookstore I was in was during a visit to State College last November. My sister took me to one in a cellar somewhere near the Penn State campus. My bearings are not what they used to be. It may have been on Beaver Street.

Stepping down the concrete stairway, the smell of dust and musty paper brought me home. It was a used book store; a maze of unfinished pine board book cases that faced all directions and could make anyone claustrophobic. On them were squeezed together a few zillion paperbacks about anything you can think of. Worn, faded, stained and dog-eared.  Novels, classics, kids stories, history, sports, religion, lgbt, literature, politics, poetry, documentary, and on and on.  Someone’s trash, someone’s treasure.  This place was a gold mine.

My sister and I were looking for “Slaughterhouse -5”. My sister had never read it, or any of Kurt Vonnegut’s books for that matter. We thumbed and searched through the first few book shelves of paperbacks that we saw, and not seeing it, we asked a woman there stacking books if she knew if there might be a copy somewhere. “No, we did, we have…anything we get in by Kurt Vonnegut goes out fast. People must really like him.” So it goes. People still like Billy Pilgrim.

In the hidden spaces between shelves were uneven legged tables that rocked when leaned on. Like the books, they were the kinds that are salvaged from the curb on garbage day. At one of the tables four people sat talking and knitting. I could just tell that this was where they often met, maybe to rest from the forced pace of life that went on up the stairs we had just come down.  Three women and one man. Simply knitting. They had no cell phones or ipods or laptops out on the table. They reminded me of some Quakers I know. I couldn’t stop thinking that this was a place that Quakers would go.

Near the table I was standing on a short step ladder looking at books about world war one that were on a top shelf. I read a lot about the Great War. It’s not the military aspect of the world war years that I am interested in, but the social aspects of the time, and how cultures were changed. Anyhow, I saw a familiar title…“Over the Top” by Arthur Guy Empery. Actually I had never read the “book”. I have read the digital copy on my Kindle, maybe three times now. I had never thought of it as a book, with pages and binding….Even though I have missed being in book stores and being around books, I realized that I hadn’t been a book person for some time. I had changed. I read on a Kindle, not paper. This really sunk in, especially that now I was standing in a book store that was as much as that as it was an antique store.

And I got to thinking too, that even though I had Slaughterhouse- 5, I couldn’t lend it to my sister…it was on my Kindle and couldn’t be passed around, handed down, or put on a shelf where it could have a new life 10 or 20 or 50 years from now. My version would always be data, but never a book. Never would it be dog-eared, worn, stained, or faded….

So much has changed and is changing.

I don’t know whether change is good or bad or if it even needs judging. But I know that I am old enough to miss some things, like bookstores when it was just as much about gathering with friends as it was about the books on the shelves and those we could share and pass around. I do miss going though shelves and stacks looking at and for books, discovering something new, or old. The closest I get to that now is scrolling on Amazon. Amazon’s got more subjects and books than I could find almost anywhere else, but it’s not the same. I don’t expect it to be. I accept that everything changes, but I hope some things, like books, don’t change so much that they are only downloads. That would be too much change. And at least for me, I don’t think it’d be a very good one.