From my tiny pied-à-terre on the corner of 11th and Broadway, I have a view of the Strand bookstore. It’s virtually impossible to look at the entrance for more than thirty second without seeing a customer enter or leave. Business is booming. As Billie noted, location, location, location. Being in a city with eight million people, a million of whom claim to be artists or intellectuals makes it easy to sell books. But there is more to the story than having a lot of potential customers. You have to know what they want. Two of the titles currently being featured on the Strand’s website are The Interrogation by J.M.G. Le Clezio, winner of the 2008 Nobel Prize in Literature, and Things I've Been Silent About by Azar Nafisi, the bestselling author of Reading Lolita in Tehran. Meanwhile, a few blocks north, Barnes & Noble is featuring the Monopoly Onyx Edition by Hasbro Games, Celebrate Motown by Marvin Gaye (with “Bonus Tracks”), and Hot Cocoa Gift Box by iGourmet. I am not making this up. In fairness, B&N does have a few books listed. Some are even fiction. But the ones piled up on the tables to catch the casual shopper’s eye are by Julie Andrews, Rachel Ray, Willie Nelson, Tony Danza, Pete Sampras, Magic Johnson, and Perez Hilton. Do I sound like a snob? In fact, I haven’t read Le Clezio’s book yet nor have I read Azar Nafisi. I probably will, but I love genre writing. I also love Willie Nelson’s singing, Pete Sampras’ serve, and Rachael Ray’s cooking. But I can only read so many books in my lifetime, and I’m not going to waste a slot on Perez Hilton. I just finished Wilma Kahn’s Big Black Hole, one of the best P.I. books I’ve read in several years. She elevates tongue-in-cheek to an art. Her characters are gritty but ultimately redeeming. You won’t find her books piled on a table at the front of B&N, but I’ll wager you’ll find them in a few used bookstores over the next few years where readers go to discover good story tellers. Incidentally, Wilma's title fails the Google test big-time.
Billie asks why is it that bookstores have such a difficult time staying in business. I keep hearing it’s because we live in a visual age. Nonsense; so did the cavemen. You can’t survive without seeing what’s around you. Once you could choose between a movie or taking a walk in the park, a visual experience. Later you could choose a movie. Then television. Now you can watch a DVD, play a video game, or surf the net on your cell phone. The world has not grown increasingly visual. The visual has just become increasingly tawdry. And fun. And we’ve not had the willpower to resist. Most Americans will choose a Cinnabun ovwer an apple and a DVD over a book. But there are still a lot of readers out there. The used bookstore in my other residence in Georgia is in a strip mall. There’s a Book-a-Million a few doors down. They both seem to be surviving. But Books-A-Million is not really a bookstore. It’s a gift shop that has some books. And a coffee shop. I have nothing against them. Let free enterprise wave. But the used book store is where I meet interesting people who read books.