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A word on bookstores


Ok, where were we? Oh yes, bookstores in Fresno.

I grew up in San Jose. As a kid I remember going to a bookstore over in the old El Passeo shopping center. (Not to be confused with the new modern El Passeo shopping center with its restaurants and huge sprawling shop after shop in an acre after acre of parking. The old shopping center was small, one story, had a tiny movie theater and walkways with fountains and interesting stonework.) Anyway, after going to the movies we would often eat ice cream and then go brows at the book shop.  I have no idea what this bookstore was called, it wasn’t a big box store at all. It was small, cramped, crowded with books and people, and it was a lot of fun to spend time in.

I remember when Barnes and Noble came to town. It was a BIG DEAL. We took a family trip to the store, and we gazed in wonder at the selection, at the wide aisles, . I decided right then and there that I wanted to work in a bookstore (I think the concept of staff discount had just been explained to me).

Now, that small independent bookstore of the old El Passeo shopping center is long since gone and as a preteen and teenager I was only too happy to do my book buying at Barnes and Noble, at Waldenbooks, at Crown. I never gave it much of a thought. Sure we would occasionally go to the small bookshops in Mountain View or Los Gatos, but mostly our book buying was at the main chains. 

Then I moved to Santa Cruz.

Very quickly I fell in love with Bookshop Santa Cruz and with Capitola Book Café. Both had great locations for me personally and both had a sense of “not corporate” that I liked even when I didn’t realize that was what I was feeling.  I would go out of my way to shop at these stores, eschewing the mighty Borders up the street. Unless of course I needed music or DVDs, then Borders was a perfect choice.  I got used to the independent bookstores, to their events, to their quirky staff who would remember me, to their book club wall, to the regulars who treated the bookshop as a social meeting place.

Plus Capitola Book Café was nice enough to stock my little independently published book. (Also available on amazon.com, but not, alas, not at Borders).

So.. we moved to Fresno and one of the first things I did was do a search for “books”

And that is when I discovered the lack, the severe lack, of any independent bookstores.

Let me explain. There is a Borders, a Barnes and Noble, a small collection of used bookstores, a bazillion religious stores (many of which are chains themselves), and one pretend bookstore. Yes, pretend. It is called a bookstore. It comes up in the google map as a bookstore. But, no.  It is a collectables store, a knick knack smelly candles store with a few book cases featuring a plethora of right wing titles and a whole section devoted to the awesomeness of Bill O’Reilly. /shudder/

Apparently, this is a wide known lack.  At a social event we attended, I was able to commiserate this lack of independent bookstores with a handful of other people.  “Ahh yes,” we all nodded sagely over our wine, “It really is a shame that there isn’t an independent bookstore here in Fresno…”

But that got me thinking… is it?

I got along fine without independent bookstores in San Jose and Sacramento. Yes, I liked the quirky ones in Santa Cruz… but will my book buying experience really be that bad without them? Don’t big chain bookstores have better selections? Better prices? Better ordering ability should they not have what you want? In store coffee shops?

I asked The Maifan-San why he liked independent bookstores better:

“The chain stores sell the big stuff, most of what they carry is the hot thing. It is guaranteed that you will find the latest Dan Brown book or whatever. But they might not have the other stuff. At independent stores you can find really oddball things, I like not knowing what I am going to find."

Ok, I get that. I do. Browsing and finding weird titles is fun and one of the best parts about book buying. (Browsing and random chance is also why I don’t shop for books online, I love you amazon.com but you just can’t compete with a table under a sign of “New Fiction” for me to thumb through.)

So yes, I understand how for that reason independent book stores are better.  But. I like reading what’s popular, or at least being able to chose not to read it with a dismissive sniff and an arched eyebrow. And even at the Borders and Barnes and Nobles you can find odd titles.  Heck, it was a Borders in the mall that I found The Mighty Book of Spam Facts (including this gem: “Your heart is made of spam. Go ahead, rip your chest open and prove us wrong!”). It was at a Barnes and Noble that I found the Book of Pressed Fairies (like pressed flowers, they are squished and not nearly as pretty as you would hope.)

The lesson is that you can find all sorts of things in all sorts of places, and while I will miss the Capitola Book Café, I think it is more about missing what the place symbolized for me; community, book lovers, laid back events, my own book on a shelf, than really about who owns it and how many versions of it there are out there in the world.

And who knows, maybe my next book will be published by a big time publisher and will actually have a marketing budget.  Maybe I will someday see my titles at a Borders.

And if not, I could always open my own bookstore. Apparently there is a market.

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