by Jas Faulkner
You could call this article “The Hanff Effect: Part One”. This story actually has two beginnings. The most recent is my friends’ experience with a reading group that had just finished Helene Hanff’s books and how they took them to heart. You’ll hear more about that later this month. What came up during that intellectual meander into the world of those books is the stark difference between Hanff’s method of shopping by distance via paper post and our own ability to browse shelves from one end of the continent to the other and beyond, ordering and paying within minutes and getting the packages in a matter of days rather than weeks.
For those who have not read 84 Charing Cross Road, Hanff, a New York based writer, placed orders by mail with a antiquarian bookseller in the UK. If my memory is correct on this, they sent her books and she would then periodically settle her account with them. For college-age Marisol, who sees a subscription to Amazon Prime as a necessary life tool, all of this is inconceivable. She was boggled that the store just sent the books on good faith and that Hanff trusted them with so many sight-unseen purchases.
I sympathize with her response. It seems like a lifetime ago that book buying for those who didn’t live in large cities with great book stores was limited to mail-order book clubs, discount sellers like Hamilton books, library sales, local UBSs. and mall chains. That may sound like a lot of outlets. The reality was that finding what you wanted was often catch as catch can. The idea of a place where a reader could browse for virtually every book in print and many that weren’t was the stuff of wishful science fiction. It was the bibliophile’s version of jet packs and robot housekeepers.
For book lovers coming of age in the latter half of the Twentieth Century in flyover country, the answer to the question of building a personal library was often answered at chain book stores. They were usually situated in malls. B. Dalton, Bookland, Brentanos, and Waldenbooks probably seemed like lite versions of the multi-storied book shops located on either coast. There were no nooks and crannies to disappear into, no benches or overstuffed chairs to serve as nests while looking through a stack to decide which ones would go home. The lighting was standard issue fluorescent and the walls and shelving the same shade of putty beige that served as an alternative to the ubiquitous seafoam and mauve hues that passed for color in cubicle farms all over the continent.
To enter a Waldenbooks was to find a corner of the mall devoted to nothing but new books. Seen in the most critical of points of view, there was a sterility to those stores. Everything was, for the most part, kept pristine. The new book smell was always there as was the lack of swag that would take over book stores in later decades. Aside from calendars and “gift books” there might be a rack of bookplates and bookmarks. It might have been due to the limited amount of space. Most of these stores were tiny, some of them taking up as little as 1000 square feet. The selection was just as limited. Most of the genres were allowed one aisle or a half-aisle of shelves. That meant there was room for the latest titles in each section and a smattering of classics. Still, it was a place to find books that were ready for our hands, for our own imprimatur as owners of our respective libraries. For people living in bookseller deprived areas, this was an oasis.
I spoke with a former Waldenbooks store manager who is now a librarian and would prefer to be identified as “Deep Spine”. (He said the groupies would just upset his wife.)
Deep Spine: To me, it was a dream job, using my retail experience to work around books all day. Of course there are the things that people who have never worked in a store never realize are such big parts of what we do: shrinkage (loss of inventory due to theft or damage) staffing, keeping the numbers up so we could stay open. It had its advantages as well. We all got a nice discount and the promotional posters and standups corporate sent us are probably still living in former employees’ dens.
I asked Deep Spine who shopped at Waldenbooks.
Deep Spine: Thinking back on that, the people who came in and browsed for long periods of time were either very young or older. I remember some senior citizens coming in to get paperbacks of books they never read when they were in school and thought they needed to read now. For kids, it was like a training place to shop for books. They started with sections set up by age and then eventually moved on to the aisles devoted to what they liked. For everyone else, it was a quick walk in to pick up what they already knew they wanted and then they were out.
So Waldenbooks was like a corner convenience store for readers?
Deep Spine: Ouch. And in retrospect, yes. Without the personal associations, the stores look regimented and cold. All corporate and no character. You know, it’s weird, but whenever I mention working for Waldenbooks, which is kind of rare, someone always brings up a good memory they have about the place. People remember specific books they bought or the time a parent or grandparent let them get whatever they wanted. It’s touching because it’s so naive and innocent, how much we took it to heart. It’s like every person filled the blandness and blanks with their own memories.
I have my own fond memories of Waldenbooks. Lubbock, Texas had great libraries, but a trip to Waldenbooks meant whatever I liked was coming home with me for keeps. When my family moved east, the independent book and music stores in Nashville were a revelation. I ditched my overly beige corporate book depository as a relic of my childhood with little more than a glance back. I admitted as much to Deep Spine.
“It was time,” he said of the final closing of Waldenbooks in 2011. “The stores were getting less and less about books. We couldn’t compete with the discount sellers and Amazon.” He smiled ruefully. “It’s kind of funny. My wife was saying the other night that she missed the days when Amazon called itself ‘The World’s Biggest Book Store’.”