Saturday, April 14, 2012

Bookstores and The Random Chat: An Appreciation

Scott D. Parker

One of the more enjoyable reads this week was one from James Reasoner. On Wednesday, he blogged his final installment of Favorite Bookstores series. In this post, “Hometown Favorites,” he waxed nostalgic about the places at which he bought books and comics in his youth. While his history wasn’t mine, he tweaked a nerve.

For me, my hometown is Houston, Texas, the city in which I still live. My book world revolved around Westwood Mall, and the two chains—B. Dalton and Waldenbooks. They were at either end of the mall, almost as far away from each other as possible. Perhaps that was a contractual thing, I don’t know. My parents are readers and just about every time we’d visit the mall, we’d step into one or both bookstores. Naturally, I’d usually find something I thought I needed. With Star Wars, The Hardy Boys, The Three Investigators, and KISS around, it wasn’t too difficult. The key for me getting something was embodied in a single question I’d ask of my parents: “Did you find anything?” If the answer was yes, I got to get something. If not, then I’d have to bargain or walk away empty-handed. Either way, unless it was a YA book, my parents would inspect that which I thought I needed and make a ruling.

Comics were a different story. I started reading comics in the latter days of the comic book spinner rack, located at just about any convenience store or grocery store. Almost as soon as I entered the sliding doors, I’d peel away from my mom and lavish my attention on the racks. In a cringe-worthy move to comic book collectors (of which I am not, at least not in the investment sense), I’d bend all the titles back and flip them upward, scanning the titles and stopping on one that interested me. There was also the “bagged” collections, where Marvel, DC, or Harvey would package three random titles together for one price. I got pretty adept at forcing the plastic back to reveal the middle book. Also, back in those days, before comics became an investment, you could find boxes of old comics at antique stores or flea markets. Plop down a few dollars and you could walk away with hours of enjoyment. Often, I’d have only one part of a larger story, but that proved not to be a bad thing as I’d finish the tales myself.

Then, one day, I discovered Roy’s Comic Shop. All they sold were comics. I didn’t know the word “nirvana” but I knew I had hit the mother lode. They had back issues! I could finally find the conclusion to stories I had read and re-read for years. It was a special, mostly weekly treat to visit my grandparents and return to Roy’s.

It was during this time (later elementary, early middle school) where I stopped being quiet in these kinds of stores, especially Roy’s. I’d ask questions about certain books. I wasn’t yet into knowing authors, but I knew artists, and I’d poll the dudes who worked at Roy’s for information on other titles drawn by certain artists. Jim Aparo was my first favorite artist, and I particularly enjoyed his lean, lithe Batman. Gradually, as I expanded my reading of SF and other books, I’d talk with other folks at Roy’s, B. Dalton, Waldenbooks, and the many used bookstores my parents frequented. In those years of discovery and learning about the larger world of reading, I had many guides.

Even though Mr. Reasoner and I grew up I different times and cities, we share a common experience: the stores we used to frequent are now gone. Roy’s moved away (Third Planet took its place and, thankfully, is still in business), Westwood Mall ceased being a retail space, and most of the used bookstores around southwest Houston closed. The big book chain of Barnes and Noble is now the default seller of books in Houston. Nothing wrong with that because they have most everything I need, but the diversity is lost. So, too, is the human contact. Where the guys at Roy’s would recognize me each week, there’s no longer that common community that Mr. Reasoner experience in his small town and I experienced at the same few stores in my youth. You have to go to smaller, independent bookstores now—like Houston’ splendid Murder by the Book where I still am greeted by name—to get that human interaction. Sure, you have to make an effort to travel to a store like this, but isn’t it worth the effort.

Many of these thoughts occurred to me in the minutes while I was reading Mr. Reasoner’s piece. Another thought also occurred to me: e-readers diminish direct human contact. I am an e-reader enthusiast (I’m one week with my new iPad and I am loving its reading capabilities) and you just can’t beat the offerings you can get electronically. Back in the day, if you were interested in the John Carter books, you were limited by that which you could find in bookstores. It also caused you to read books out of order. Intrigued by the new John Carter movie in 2012? Any number of sites has all eleven Burroughs books nicely listed, in order, mind you, and ready for you to download. Heard about Twilight, The Hunger Games, Percy Jackson, Stephanie Plum, Eve Dallas, or Spencer? No problem. All the information you want is literally at your fingertips. More information that you really wanted to know, truth be told. And you can have that data instantly, without talking or even communicating to another human soul.

Can you learn that which you want to know? More than likely, and within seconds. Might you have learned just a little bit more had you engaged in a discussion at a bookstore with another patron about the very same subject? Absolutely.

Let’s be fair: there are innumerable online places where book fans can communicate. I’ve been to them and I’ll visit more in the future. But there’s something about a random chat with a fellow book lover that’s special. Even now, I can easily remember an impromptu discussion of time travel based on Back to the Future with three of my friends and a fellow SF reader back in 1985. That spontaneity is what book stores give you, and it used to be more prominent back in the day.

Think I need to get back to Third Planet or Murder by the Book soon. I need to start a random conversation.

1 comment:

GreekHebrew said...

Thanks for sharing your personel experience, that's nice.