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It’s Hard Not to Be a Poser Sitting in a Barnes & Noble

June 10, 2009

Chain book stores have contributed to the gradual dumbing down of America. While it’s true they aren’t DIRECTLY responsible for the sad truth that more people read text messages than books, they compound the problem significantly. For their part, they are far less interested in what is good to read and are interested only in what sells. I recently read an article, originally published in The New Yorker and discussed by the NY Times Sunday Book Review  levying the same accusation at The Poetry Foundation of Chicago. This is one of those sad truths that writers must face when they decide to wander into the shit storm of submissions and rejections that come before publication. Not only are we competing with all the other writers out there who are now scribbling for space in magazines with dwindling readerships, we are competing with published writers who occupy the shelf spaces in libraries and bookstores everywhere. Here’s another statistic: only about 1 percent of the books published each year are written by new writers. Chain bookstores stock their shelves with the books that they have the best chance of moving. That’s just the business of books, which most people need to understand has little to do with the art of writing.

 Now, paranoid though I may be, I don’t see this as some deep dark conspiracy. (Not that I wouldn’t like to, and not that I couldn’t convince myself, given enough time and tequila.)  I see chain bookstores not so much as a Moriarty – the evil genius who was Sherlock Holmes’ arch nemesis – and more like the putrid afterbirth of a the McDonalds inspired business style that has infected our cultural life. Chain book stores can buy in bulk and sell cheaper. Every Barnes & Noble or Borders you walk into looks pretty much the same. We have grown accustomed to this familiarity. You can move to a new place where you don’t know anybody; but once you walk into a chain bookstore, you feel a little bit like you’re home.

 The marriage of coffee shops and bookstores have the added benefit of giving you a place to sit and read whatever book, magazine, or puzzle book you purchased. You can walk up to the counter, and in your best faux Italian/Tony Soprano accent, order your frappe latte con leche half decaf with soy chocolate sprinkles and non-fat whipped cream, then sit and relax. In this WiFi age, you can simply go to the in-store coffee shop, order your mile long coffee drink, and open up your laptop to twitter about the glob of fat free caramel sauce on the tip of your nose. 

 Despite my feelings, there are times when I find myself wandering the shelves of a Barnes & Noble. Most recently, it was on a Saturday morning. My wife wanted to go shopping – nothing grand, mind you. My wife is not one of the sniveling shoe hording masses who need a credit card to feel alive. But when she does need to buy something, and we have the money for it, she takes to the task with zest and enthusiasm. She asked me if I wanted to go. Naturally, I said no; not because I don’t enjoy spending time with her, but because it’s really better for both of us if I don’t accompany her on her shopping jaunts. In the past when I have gone with her, I end up following her around. This leads to her getting frustrated because … well … I’m always THERE. And there’s not always an electronics or tool aisle to shoo me off to.  (Not that I wander tool aisles that much. I’m not one of those handy husbands. I’m one of those husbands whose car falls on him when he changes the oil. True story.)

 Usually when I refuse, she goes ahead without me, gets whatever it was she was going to get, and comes home. No worries. But she asked me again. “You’ll hate it,” I told her. “You hate it when I go shopping with you.” (And I’m not all that crazy about it, either.)

 “You can wait for me at the bookstore,” she offered.  The store she was going to was in the same strip mall as a Barnes & Noble. 

I can’t help myself. Chain or no chain, I have trouble turning down the possibility of buying a book. I’ve gotten better in that there’s a specific list of books (memorized) that I’m always on the hunt for, and, given the correct circumstances and financial stability, I’ll buy.  I like to try independent book sellers first, and there’s a great one here called Changing Hands. But there are times – like that particular moment – when I simply couldn’t resist.

 She dropped me off and I went inside. I walked through the CD and DVD section, through the shoplifting prevention checkpoint and I was immediately sucked into the fiction section. I wandered the walls of shelves, looking at books, going down the list in my head. Believe it or not, I have improved. I no longer buy books simply to buy books. I make sure to buy things that I know I’ll read and that I know I’m interested in. Sometimes I stumble onto a new writer or a book that had escaped me – most recently Wells Tower’s collection of short stories Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned – and I am pleasantly surprised. Otherwise, my list is intact. So I wandered the isles, and finding one or two books that were on my list, I decided to make my way back to the cash registers. I bought Stephen Crane’s Maggie: A Girl of the Streets and Thom Jones’ The Pugilist at Rest.  (I also like to try and balance dead writers with living ones. I may not be able to do anything about the business of books, but I can sure as shit try and throw a little support behind the ones I like who are still breathing.)

 After I declined an opportunity to become a Barnes & Noble Member and get 10% off qualifying purchases – none of which are ever on my list, by the way – I bought my books and still had time to kill. The smell of brewing coffee reminded me that I’d only had one cup of coffee that morning, which was well short of the usual caffeine levels that I need to sustain my cheery and optimistic world view. So I wandered over, ordered my usual when I’m thrown into a Starbucks – a Vente Americano, no room for cream or sugar – and found a table, where I sat down and started perusing Stephen Crane and sipping my hot coffee.

 I kept my cellphone handy, since I was waiting for my wife to call. The coffee, as always, was frustratingly good. (I’ll rant on the death of the true coffee shop some other time.) There were other people scattered around at other tables and comfy looking chairs, sipping various coffee drinks and chatting, or flipping through a magazine. Two people were on their laptops and typing busily. I flipped past the standard biographical introduction and started reading about Maggie. I read a few pages, sipping my coffee. It had been a few years since I read anything by Stephen Crane – I went on a long detox of canonical (aka: dead white guy) literature after graduate school – and I found myself enjoying it.

A phone went off. I instinctively grabbed mine, even though it wasn’t even my ringtone. I was sucking down the coffee pretty quickly. If Melissa didn’t show up soon, I’d have to give up my seat and go take a piss. Since I was distracted from reading, I took the opportunity to examine the book a little more closely. It was a paperback (naturally), with the usual glue/trade binding that’s more and more common. I chose that particular edition (there were four or five others) because it was cheap and sturdy – and the low price sticker enabled me to buy two books instead of just one. Win-win, I thought.

 Then I looked at the spine. It was a Barnes & Noble edition. Apparently, selling books wasn’t enough for them. They had to start printing their own, too. No wonder it was so cheap.

 I looked around again. No one else was reading a book, let alone a Barnes & Noble Classics Edition. That was when the pomposity of the entire situation struck me. There I was, sitting with my coffee drink (never mind that it was actually coffee) reading a thoroughly literary book and sitting in a book store where they were undercutting their own merchandise with cheaper versions of the things they know will sell. Dead writers always sell. They’re not around to ruin their reputations or, gawd forbid, write a bad book. 

 I was about to get up and leave – the urge to piss was as good an excuse as any – when my phone went off.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. lost-n-thot permalink
    June 11, 2009 5:23 pm

    Ok, you are a freakin genius. that is so true! but i think someone out there should deffinatly start a store that only sells books from new authors. i know i’d be a frequent visitor because i for one am very tired of all this series shit like twilight. no offense to the author but it is athiest, pointless and all around over-rated. more middle schoolers have read that book than johnny depp has done drugs. (no offence to depp. hes one of my fav actors) but honestly, whats so great about a traitor blood sucking vampire? nothing. i would rather spend my time reading ted dekker or stephen king. those are real books :) sooo basicly to sum all that up.. UR A MASTER MIND! just change ur pic bc u look like a creeper :)

    • June 12, 2009 8:27 am

      Thanks for your comments. There are some great indie bookstores out there… they’re just usually hard to find.

      As for the pic… believe me when I tell you, that was the best one. I can’t take a good pic to save my life.

  2. lost-n-thot permalink
    June 15, 2009 11:35 am

    hahaha well thats kinda scary. just try 2 take one that you dont look like your about 2 eat a bunch of little kids in :) lmao


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