JE: For years, on Bainbridge Island, there was this great little record store called the Glass Onion. The dude who owned it was named Jeff, and he loved his job. Basically, by buying a record store, he bought himself into a low paying job for life. Or so he thought. He was smart, passionate, and informed in a dizzyingly wide array of musical genres, and always managed to be on the cutting edge, without necessarily looking like a guy who lived on the cutting edge. Is this sounding familiar yet?
I’d go into the shop, and I’d say Jeff, what have you got for me? And he’d ask me what I was feeling like. And usually, I’d tell him nothing in particular. Surprise me. Jeff would hold court. He would preach music, he would champion artists exhaustively. People would be standing in line at the counter waiting for him to shut up, so he could ring them up. But even so, they’d be listening. We’d get a little history, some context, some good old fashioned subjectivity. And in the end, based on my conversation with Jeff, I’d walk out with great music. Rarely, did Jeff fail me, and even when I didn’t connect with a purchase, I always had a deeper appreciation for the music because of our conversation.
They tell me search engines can do this, too. But isn’t a search engine going to result in a somewhat one-sided conversation? If I like this, then I’ll like this. Don’t we lose something with the disappearance of that second voice? Without that conversation, I cringe to think of the music I might not have experienced. Today, I’m still cringing at the thought of the music I may be missing, since Jeff closed his doors a few years back, because, well, music was mostly a digital affair. It’s cheaper, they say. You can get your product quicker, more conveniently, it won’t skip after repeated plays. You don’t have to buy a whole album. You can skip the parts you don’t want.
But what did we lose? In the past eight weeks, I’ve visited more than forty independent bookstores all over the continent, and every one of them had its own personality, and virtually every one of them was owned by an impassioned soul, who had bought themselves into a low paying job by buying bookstore. Oh, and virtually every one of them was a pillar of their community, who put their money right back into said community. And guess what else? All their employees were impassioned people, who happened to be local, and happened to like working for a low wage, if only because it allowed them to work around books, and to spread the word about books and authors, and none more so than the those who otherwise might fall under the radar, or the search engine.
Think about that the next time you click “buy” online to save a couple bucks. Ask yourself: what have I lost, what has my community lost, in the name of convenience? You wanna’ live in a town with wide boulevards, no sidewalks, and box stores on both sides? Then don’t spend your money at indiebookstores, or indie hardware stores, or indie grocery stores. Don’t seek out conversations. Just keep clicking and saving, and serving yourself in the name of convenience.
The last time I saw Jeff in the grocery store, the dude looked kinda’ crazy. A little unshaven. Sorta’ googly-eyed. He started talking to me in the cheese aisle, and talking fast, too. Like I was the first person he’d seen in months. He followed me all the way to the hardware section, then to the frozen goods, then to the produce, then back to the cheese aisle, because he was talking so much that I forgot my cheese. He wouldn’t stop talking. He couldn’t stop talking. I couldn’t get rid of the guy. Honestly, I thought he was gonna’ follow me to my car. I thought I was gonna’ have to give him a ride home. I thought he was gonna’ make me come inside.
So, you see people, THIS is what happens! I don’t wanna see Betsy Burton of The Kings English in Salt Lake City following people to their cars because she’s got nobody to talk to about books! I don’t want Morley Hoarder of Eagle Harbor Books stalking me in the pet food aisle! Or Deon Stonehouse of Sunriver Books! Or Chuck and Dee Robinson of Village Books in Bellingham! Or anyone else. So, please, dear reader, take an extra few minutes, spend an extra couple bucks, or we may soon have an epidemic on our hands. And if you see Jeff coming, run like hell!
PS- And just for the record, most indie bookstores now sell e-books, so this isn’t purely an ink and paper vs. digital proposition we’re talking about, here. This is about how you want your community to look. Boxy is as boxy shops.