Sunday’s New York Times featured an article about the diminished literary scene in Manhattan, highlighted by the loss of bookstores – all of some three dozen bookshops on what was once Book Row (Fourth Avenue between Eighth and 14th Street) are now gone. But what I found interesting was the connection between a community’s literati and its bookstores. Writers, it seems, rely on a network of common hangouts (bars, hotels, restaurants and bookstores) to interact with other writers, or at least those who are interested in writing. Here in Pittsboro, I’ve been surprised – amazed really – by how many of the visitors to Circle City Books over its first two months have been writers. Many self-published, some still agent and publisher shopping, some who’ve already fought their way into the business and now just need to write, but all illustrative of the symbiotic relationship writers have with places like mine. Today a writer from Brooklyn came by and we talked at length about his project – a history of a strike at a nearby wood mill. I don’t know how he found my store, but I guess there is an unmistakable scent that attracts practicing wordsmiths.
It helps that I have a mural in progress which, along with bringing attention to my store, has the added effect of promoting all the authors who are featured there. I think that by the time it’s finished, there will be about 50 books in all, many of them living, local authors. As I told one (who came by and told me how thrilled she was to see her name on the spine of a 10-foot tall book permanently on display), “You’ll need to help keep me in business, because if I close down, the next tenant will just paint over those books and there won’t even be a remainder table for them to be dumped on.” I was joking, of course, but there’s no denying that’s the truth of the situation. In Manhattan, Book Row is just a memory.
There are now just 29,795 book shops in America. On the other hand, in August, the government reported that there are 51,438 gun shops in America, not counting pawn shops and gun shows. This is too bad because bookshops are unquestionably more pleasant to visit. Besides the engaging personalities of those who lurk within the shops, bookstores have other advantages: Bookstores offer merchandise that can be safely handled by children; books do not need to be kept unloaded, and never need to be kept separate from their essential ingredient; when books are misused, the result can be repaired with Scotch tape; rarely do books accidentally hit an innocent bystander; the autopsies that transpire within books never involve the reader or his family; if you are a felon, you’re free to purchase as many books as you want, with no background check. Yet, still the bookstores dwindle as the gun shops spread like tumors. Dave Barry once suggested that reading could be encouraged by offering deductions for each book report submitted with income tax returns. That proposal seems to be going nowhere. But still, the bookshop abides, a boat against the current, free of memorials and prayer vigils and funerals, for as long as the public will have us.