I had the pleasure of visiting Oblong Books yesterday and was reminded again how amazing our thriving indie bookstores are these days. Barnes & Noble might technically have a larger selection, but honestly, I’ll take smaller, but better, any day. Note that the big “A” online store shall not be named in this essay.
Many happy afternoons in my teen years were spent at The Montclair Book Center. Chock full of books, from floor to its 15-foot ceiling, it remains to this day an amazing store full of new and old volumes. Always good for an out-of-print mass market paperback of some old fantasy novel. It was here that I discovered Tamora Pierce, as just one example.
Adulthood has brought me Labyrinth with its sinfully amazing bargain books, The Spotty Dog that mixes books and a cozy bar, Watchung Booksellers, with its sweet adjacent restaurant The Tiny Elephant, Farley’s, complete with Butter the bookstore cat, the aforementioned Oblong and its quietly amazing music selection, and Inquiring Minds which always has a used gem or ten on its shelves. They’re all cozy and unique and the staff is helpful, knowledgeable, and passionate about books.
OK, so yes there are always amazing books to find in these places, but I admit that part of me loves seeing all the interesting other things they carry. Blank books, playing cards, socks, candles, pins, tote bags, all the flotsam and jetsam that flows right along with the books, giving an extra layer of character to each store.
In addition to selling books and related ephemera, these stores are vital parts of their communities, often acting as event spaces and supporting fundraising and homes for activist work of all kinds. It’s this kind of energy and passion that you will never get at a large chain and I’m grateful for the work these folks do to keep literature and community alive in the places they serve.
Now, back to books! At an indie bookstore, I will pick up and at least read the cover of books I would glide right past at the big store. I’ve also found interesting editions of classics with covers that bring extra life to stories written long ago. Presentation really is everything and while we may try not to judge a book by its cover, a nice looking one is likely to draw me in a little more.
Honestly, though? My favorite discoveries are in the Science Fiction and Fantasy sections. They tend to be small at these stores, limited to a bookcase or two, but oh the selection. These are not places looking to push fifty copies of the latest five volume epic out the door. Instead, they’re highly-curated selections, chosen by people who care about what they’re selling.
Yesterday I came home with a list of no less than fifteen titles that I had never heard of before, and another ten that I had heard about, but never seen in a store before. I’ll also admit that I’m wary of books I’ve not held in my hand. You never know what the typography will look like and can only hope that it will be smooth and easy to read rather than clunky and distracting. At an indie store, this is much less of a concern as, right along with the literary fiction books, the entire presentation is considered, even with genre books.
But oh, those new titles. I generally dislike military sci-fi and also have grown tired of the flavor of fantasy that takes multiple volumes and a sprawling, epic cast list to tell its story. Give me Star Wars-style adventures in space and single volume fantasy tales and I’m a happy camper. Unfortunately for me, these kinds of stories seem to be out of vogue, which is why I write them, instead.
Happily, every time I go to an indie bookstore I’ve found out that I’m wrong. My favorite kinds of stories, and more I never dreamed existed, are still being published, albeit quietly and in smaller print runs that the big chains don’t feel are worth carrying. Additionally, the diversity of the books these stories carry is outstanding. Genre, international, and other boundaries are all crossed and you end up with an interesting, unique selection to choose from.
I hope I’ve given you a bit of inspiration to go check out your own local independent bookstore. Many towns have them and while they might seem a bit small on first glance, I hope you give them a try. You may be very surprised to find yourself sitting there cozily two hours after you walk in, a pile of books next to you and a bookstore cat curled at your feet. Give them a skritch from me.