Ode to a Bookstore

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I suppose historical holidays make me a bit nostalgic, so I’m taking a week away from my series on the relationship of history and archives to look back at an essay I wrote in 1994.

Early in the morning on Friday, the 7th of January, a fire ruined Kimbrell’s furniture store in downtown Durham.  Smoke billowed from the building and filled the downtown sky throughout the day.  Rumors circulated that the blaze had also damaged the neighboring fifty-eight-year-old bookstore, the Book Exchange, but no one knew how the fire had started.  My heart sank when I heard a similar news report on public radio.  I felt the need to go to the site and mourn the loss of a friend because I have been a loyal customer of this bookstore for years.  I consider it my sanctuary where all books can be reverenced.  But I didn’t think I could face the tangles of rubbernecking news hounds and redirected traffic.

When I did finally summon up the courage to drive downtown on Saturday, I was prepared for the worst.  I had visions of the charred shell of the bookstore, black soot licking the few portions of remaining wall, the back of the building demolished, revealing a feeble surviving interior structure and a few books carelessly tossed by the flames onto the recesses of the ground floor.  As I approached the building, I could detect no visible damage to the front of the Book Ex, as it is affectionately called by its regular patrons.  When I drove around to the back side, I found a fire truck and several firemen tending to the smoldering Kimbrell’s building.  But other than black soot marks on the back of the building, I could still not see much significant exterior damage.

As it turned out, the Book Ex suffered mainly from smoke and water damage.  So once they reestablished electricity early the next week, the store reopened.  However, the main two storefronts were closed due to the damage inside, so all customers had to wait in line to be served in the third storefront.  The line twisted around in the tiny space not covered by book racks or books stacked on the floor.  Despite the hint of smoke still in the air, the distinctive Book Ex aroma — a somewhat musty but pleasant used book smell — reassuringly filled the store.  I sometimes feel guilty about going because I don’t want to give the idea that I’m going there to buy cheaper books, thinking that they will be useful to me only for four months.  I actually keep all of the books that I buy rather than selling them at the end of the term, and I frequently reread them later.  Many times if I have not been able to finish a book during a hectic semester, I will even go back later to read it, confident that it will be of some value to me.

When the bookstore reopened, the salesmen not only greeted people with a “Who’s next?  How can I help you?” but also with a flashlight because electricity was only restored to the one portion of the store.  As people listed the books they wanted, sometimes the salesman would despondently shake his head.  “Sorry, that didn’t make it through the fire.”  At other times, he was uncertain and would come back after several minutes of searching, only to say, “I’m sorry, I remember seeing it now.  It was in the section that was scheduled to be moved the day of the fire.  It didn’t make it.”  Another time, a salesman told a young man, “Sorry, it’s in a pile of wet books in the middle of the floor over there.  The firemen must have seen that it was public policy and aimed the hose at it!”  The student replied, “Sell me the wet.  It’s just a book.”

“It’s just a book.”  The phrase rang through my head for days.  To me, it is much more than a book.  I don’t buy books just because they’re listed on a syllabus, just so I can have them in my possession and occasionally look things up in the index.  I consider books a key to my exploration of ideas and of the world.

I’ve had a reverence for books since I was very young, and my memories of childhood are punctuated by memories of the books which I read.  I remember the first time that I read aloud by myself.  I was about three, and we had company at our house.  I gathered up my Dr. Seuss books from the hall bookshelf and took them into the living room and started reading to everyone.  I can still see the box of little story books in my first grade room and remember going to the second grade room to borrow another box when I had finished reading the ones in my room.  When I moved to a new school in the third grade, I was given the regular level reading book, but by the end of the week, I had been moved up about three levels.  I remember participating in the Multiple Sclerosis Read-a-thon for many years and reading about forty books in a month, listing them alongside the people who unwittingly pledged donations based on the number of books that I would read.  I can pick out the special books bought on trips, like an old collection of Lewis Carroll’s books that I found in Oxford where he lived for many years.  Once when I went into a bookstore and saw a display of the most frequently banned books — such as The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Diary of Anne Frank — I wrote down the titles so I could try to read them all later.

Now I own over four hundred books, in all shapes and sizes and subjects.  Hardback, soft cover, autographed, history, novels, poetry, mysteries.  I take very good care of my books.  I try not to break the spine or bend the cover of paperback books.  I like feeling the texture and weight of different papers.  I arrange the books on my shelves according to categories of writing, grouping all of the works of an author together within those categories.  I have always used my spending money to buy books, considering them an investment in my own personal evolution.  I cherish my collection as a reflection of my voracity as a reader.  I think I have a reverence for the written word because of the great effort that I know it takes to construct good prose, and I translate this reverence into respect for the tangible book itself.

It pained me much more that some of the books in the Book Ex were damaged than it did to realize that the entire contents of Kimbrell’s furniture were lost and the building would have to be torn down.  I know that there were no rare books housed in the Book Ex, and I know that the fire was caused by faulty wiring, not by an arsonist who hates books.  The information contained on the pages of the damaged books has not been lost.  But symbolically, I felt like I had lost an opportunity to delve into the breadth of material once collected in the bookstore.

In light of this fire, I have decided what books represent to me.  Imagination: the chance to become a part of the world of Will Barrett.  Memory: the remembrance of reading Steinbeck on a Scottish island.  Security: a book that I take with me almost everywhere I go, knowing that if I have extra time, I can entertain myself.  Freedom: the possibility of challenging new ideas on the pages of a book and of culling those that I find most pertinent to my life.  Admittedly, the physical form of a book is not most important.  But I cherish the object for the treasure that it holds inside — the ideas and the questions.  I know that fires cannot damage the knowledge which I already possess, but I will always look gratefully on bookstores as the providers of a sanctuary for my growth.

Although the Book Exchange did emerge from this fire in 1994, 15 years later, it joined the litany of great independent bookstores that have shut their doors as a consequence of competition from online retailers and big box stores and the changing reading habits among the American public.  I’m glad I had so many years to enjoy its greatness.


Reading as art and science

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There’s nothing quite like a cold night to make me want to curl up under a blanket with a good book.  Thinking about reading has also caused me to revisit some articles about books and reading.

In September, The Atlantic included a piece about publishing during World War Two.  But before I reflect on its content, let me fill in two gaps.  First of all, the era of the dime novel ran roughly from the Civil War to the Great Depression.  These stories tended toward the themes of nationalism and good versus evil, and with the development of inexpensive published books, reading was embraced by the working class.  (For more on dime novels, see collections at Stanford, Villanova, and the Library of Congress.)  Secondly, in 1926 the Book of the Month Club was launched, and for nearly a century, it delivered a new book to its members every month.  In so doing, it created a culture where books were items to be consumed in a physical, not just an intellectual, sense.

Now we can pick up with The Atlantic piece.  It points out that before World War Two, reading materials were largely dictated by class status, with dime novels being most popular among the working class and “serious books” the purview of the wealthy, who had both the time to track down these rare tomes and the money to invest in them.  But during World War Two, Pocket Books and Penguin Books decided to start publishing a wide variety of titles in an inexpensive paperback format, to be sold at magazine and newspaper stands.  The Council on Books in Wartime got on the bandwagon, and in February 1943 proposed to sell millions of books to the army at six cents a volume.  W.W. Norton, the chair of the council, convinced his fellow publishers that this business venture would pay off in the long run by creating a nation of readers.  He explained that the purpose was to offer “‘new books and books of enduring value,’ that might keep soldiers and sailors ‘in touch with thought and currents of life in their country.'”  As the author concludes, “By giving away the best it had to offer, the publishing industry created a vastly larger market for its wares.  More importantly, it also democratized the pleasures of reading, making literature, poetry, and history available to all.”  And in the process, these Armed Services Editions destigmatized paperback books.

During Homecoming weekend in 2009, the Duke Magazine hosted a forum about the future of reading and the impact of technology on reading.  Sven Birkerts explained that printed books have always been “premised on individual authorship, on systematized classification, and on cumulative progress along a timeline, at least where scholarship is concerned.”  Libraries have filled the role of providing centralized access to books but in a larger sense have also “been our culture’s way of putting an institutional imprimatur on the life of the mind.”  He goes on to make a compelling argument that physical books in libraries — with their intentional collection and organized classification and arrangement — contribute to the “structure of knowledge.”  And while the printed book undergirds the principle of authorship, the reading that is typically done from screens and databases is much more fluid and collaborative — what Birkerts refers to as “the hiving of information.”

Given the preponderance of electronic devices used today for all sorts of reading and information gathering, there is obvious cause for concern about the future of reading and libraries.  A few months ago, a technology writer for The Atlantic cited a poll by the Pew Research Center that actually found millennials are almost ten percent more likely to have read a book in the past year than their over-thirty counterparts.  But at the same time, they were more likely to have used a library website than to have actually visited a library to check out a book.

The transformation that shaped the libraries that most of us recognize was begun by Andrew Carnegie, who spent about $60 million in the early 20th century to create 1,689 public libraries across the United States.  (Prior to this point, most libraries had been subscription libraries, reserved for the wealthy.)  In the words of a 2013 NPR story, “public libraries became instruments of change — not luxuries, but rather necessities, important institutions — as vital to the community as police and fire stations and public schools.”

In light of our changing reading habits, I guess the question that remains is whether public libraries can continue to position themselves as necessities and instruments of change.  I for one hope we as a society can continue to embrace these institutions that sanction the life of the mind.

Little Free Libraries

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Sharing books has a long history —

  • dog-eared copies of favorites read more than once
  • reading lists shared with friends
  • book clubs
  • libraries.

Each of these is a means of promoting knowledge of and access to books that might otherwise not be noticed.  While most libraries have felt compelled to embrace the world of e-books for their patrons, the other examples depend on a more personal touch — the cherished volume loaned to a friend (but with a bookplate inside the front cover to guarantee its safe return!), the suggested reading lists tailored to the interests of friends, the book clubs that come together around certain themes and concerns.  Although for most people reading is a solitary activity, it is at the same time one that spawns the search for community — for people who can share our fascination about the development of a character or plumb the depths of well-constructed prose or offer different perspectives about related works.

In a culture seemingly obsessed with all things electronic, I have been fascinating to watch the development of the Little Free Libraries.  The first one was built in 2009 in Wisconsin, and since that time, thousands of these structures have been placed all over the world as a mechanism for sharing books.  There are no traditional librarians that attend these collections, so at first glance they seem impersonal.  But the Little Free Libraries web site includes the stories of the “stewards” who have created these outposts of reading and sharing, and many do so for intensely personal reasons.  There are plenty of apps and web sites that allow people to share reading lists and commentaries on books, but yet these tactile libraries are increasingly popular.

Many uphold the value of the shield of anonymity that cloaks the true identities of people on the Internet, but I can make an argument that movements like the Little Free Libraries are challenging that anonymity and attempting to establish a more personal connection.  It’s not that check-out cards are required or that patrons are necessarily identified in any way.  But the collections of books begin as reflections on the people who assemble them, and the fact that many of these libraries are located on personal property underscores the fact that these people are willing to stand by their choices.  The impact of these libraries can easily be gauged just by watching books disappear and new ones appear.  And while the patrons of these libraries may never choose to meet in person and discuss a book over a cup of tea, I still contend that they are filling a basic need for community.

I’ve chosen to write about books and community today, so let me conclude with a recommendation: Benedict Anderson wrote Imagined Communities in 1983 (and updated it several times since).  It’s a fascinating and extremely well-received look at nationalism and the factors that bring people together.

Summer reading

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Summer is the perfect time to catch up on some reading.  In case you’re in need of suggestions, here’s a list assembled by the New York Public Library that runs the gamut from babies to adults.  For a list with more of a history focus, check out this one from the Library of Congress.  David Ferriero, the Archivist of the United States, keeps a running list on his blog of books that he’s reading.

Many colleges require incoming first year students to read a book that will be discussed during orientation, as a means of exposing students to new ideas and encouraging them to become part of a community of dialogue.  Last year, the Business Insider compiled a list of 19 books being read by incoming freshmen.  Here’s the list for this year’s reading at some of the top ten colleges on the U.S. News and World Report national universities list:


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Archives and libraries are always in need of more funds, and here’s a new fundraising program that’s been implemented.  I’m sure they’re still accepting outright donations, but the Duke University Libraries have also begun an Adopt-a-Book program, whereby supporters can “adopt” a rare book that is in need of conservation.  In return, the new adoptive parents will receive an electronic bookplate, added into the item’s catalog record.  And, at least thus far, the donors are also listed at the bottom of the information page linked above.

While people have long been able to donate money to buy books for libraries, this fundraiser with a focus on conservation is an interesting twist.  The Smithsonian Libraries seem to have a similar program in place.

Maya Angelou

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Maya Angelou punctuates my memories of the 1990s.  She delivered an address to my incoming class at Duke, imploring us to recognize that our lives had already been paid for and challenging us to live in a manner that would have a positive impact on the lives of others.  This theme recurred in the poem that she delivered at Bill Clinton’s 1993 inauguration, “On the Pulse of Morning.”

After her death this week, NPR broadcast a recording of Angelou reading her poem “Still I Rise.”  As with so many of her writings, she shows her reader how to meet adversity with hope.  But it’s her commentary on rising above what’s written in history that speaks to me as an archivist — speaks to the importance of preserving voices so that, even when they are not immediately recognized, their gifts and dreams and hopes may some day rise.

If you’ve somehow overlooked this remarkable author, her official web site includes a biography, a useful annotated list of her books, a list of the films with which she was involved, and other media.  The New York Times posted an article that provides a thorough overview of her early life.  NPR also ran a full story this week.

In 2010 the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, part of the New York Public Library system, bought the papers of Maya Angelou.  (I cannot discover a finding aid online, so I assume this collection has not yet been processed.)  The New York Times article previously mentioned includes a short embedded video that interviews the director of the Schomburg.

I leave you with Angelou’s final tweet: “Listen to yourself, and in that quietude, you might hear the voice of God.”

Happy May Day

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In 1884, the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions set May 1, 1886, as the date by which an eight-hour work day would become standard.  A strike at the McCormick plant was met with police violence, so several days later a labor demonstration convened to show support for these workers.  An unknown person threw a bomb into the crowd, and the ensuing chaos resulted in the deaths of at least four civilians and seven policemen and numerous injuries.  The trials and executions and commutations dragged on for many years.

More information about this so-called Haymarket Affair can be seen in a digital collection created by the Chicago Historical Society.  The web site includes interesting background about how the source materials were selected and digitized.

But back to May Day.  In 1890, leaders of the American Federation of Labor decided to designate May 1st as the day when workers would once again strike for an eight-hour work day.  Samuel Gompers got the support of international labor leaders in the first congress of the Second International, and May Day was born both as a means to unite international workers in their fight for shorter hours and as a way to honor those who had died at Haymarket and other labor protests.

I recently came across a list of books that was generated by the Department of Labor last year to celebrate its centennial.  They titled the initiative “Books That Shaped Work in America,” and the list itself makes for fascinating reading.  It spans everything from John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress to Mo Willems I’m a Frog.  Visitors to the site can recommend additional volumes to the list, and each book includes a brief description along with the name of its recommender.

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