I spoke too soon. Just after affirming here and now as “as good as it gets,” I noticed that Cover to Cover Bookstore on 24th and Castro in San Francisco was going out of business. Mark, the owner, was out on the sidewalk and the store was empty, with the last five shelves of books outside and selling for a $1 per book. This bookstore had been a staple of the neighborhood for a couple of decades and no one was happy it was leaving. What particularly struck me while I was browsing the bargains was the number of people chatting with Mark, thanking him for what he had given and concerned about what he was going to do now. He seemed to know just about every one who passed by and they all stopped to chat, offering both condolences and appreciation.
I got back on my bike, headed up 24th St. and passed the Mystery Bookstore with its sign, “Oldest Mystery Bookstore in the U.S.A.” That lifted my heart until I noticed another sign: “50% off. Closing Sale.” Aargh! What’s going on here?
Well, simply what has been going on for a while. Our obsession with ease and efficiency and preference for big corporate over Mom and Pop continues to take its toll. Consumerism without relationship. Workers who get a paycheck, but don’t know anything about their trade beyond what shows up on the computer screen. Browsing in cyberspace, but without the pleasure of thumbing through the pages of a book, feeling its heft and weight and smell. Hunting through shelves until something pops out and suddenly you know that’s the book you’re meant to read now. Conversing with the cashier who comments on your choice and perhaps recommends other possibilities— well, Amazon.com tells you, “if you liked this, then consider that,” but who exactly is talking? We’ll never know. And if our favorite Website closes, there’ll be no one out on the street to talk to about it and shake their hand to thank them.
As a kid, my mother took me shopping to Sam and Andy’s vegetable store. We got what we needed for the week’s dinners, but we also got to catch up with Sam (never did meet Andy and have often wonder "What happened to him?"), find out what’s fresh, what’s seasonable, hear the news of his family, tell the news of ours. I usually got a free peach or pear—and this went on for 20 years. Last time I was in New Jersey, the store was still there, with Sam’s son having taken it over. These days, that is a minor miracle.
What I’m starting to miss is the small chit-chat, the time spent in silent company with other browsers, the sense of a place with character and personality —Green Apple bookstore felt distinct from Cover to Cover, the Clay Theater different from the Castro, the Owl and Monkey Café not at all like the Zephyr café. Every Borders is mostly just another Borders, every Multiplex Cinema just like every other, every Starbucks just like the one across the street. And then when we take the next shopping trip into Cyberspace, we are exactly nowhere at all. Makes me long for “the good ol’ days!” (Though the irony of that longing while writing this Blog online is not lost on me.)
Though there’s every reason to be cynical about our determination to exile Sam and Andy, to be discouraged by the immense economic success of Walmart and Costco and subsequent cultural decline that comes with it, to be depressed by the epidemic closing of the independent bookstores, the one-screen movie theaters, the one-of-a-kind roadside cafes, still I am an optimist at heart. We flawed humans continue to make poor choices, suckered in by the advertising folks and hungry for a bargain at the click of a button, but somewhere in our emotional wiring lies an intuitive sense that something is missing, that we’ve sold a part of our precious social real estate.
Again, we might compensate in yet weirder ways—meeting folks in cyber-chat rooms or hibernating in our electronic fantasy worlds—but mostly, something rises up to compensate—like Farmer’s Markets, for example. We’ve shown that we’re perfectly willing to pay three times as much money for an organic locally-grown tomato, not only for its juicy authentic tomato-ness far superior to its anemic supermarket cousin, but for the conviviality of the buzz of human beings exchanging goods in the open air, with music playing and vendors urging you to taste their co-creation like proud parents.
Now, there is a veritable explosion of books written about such choices, some of them best-sellers like Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. But it still is sad that you won’t be able to buy them at Cover to Cover Bookstore.