You don’t tug on Superman’s cape. Everyone knows that.
You don’t touch Popeye’s spinach. Or swipe James Bond’s car. Or get scuff marks on Elvis’s blue suede shoes.
And if you’re a sensible human being who wants me to keep my (precarious) sanity, you don’t ever, ever mess around with my access to bookstores.
Trouble is, sensible people seem to be in short supply lately.
If you’re a book addict, too, you’ve seen the progression. First, the smaller bookstores got squeezed out, like the old City News on Main Street, where I worked my way through college. Then came the larger fish: Waldenbooks, B. Dalton, Borders.
And now? Now the bell may be tolling on the mighty shark known as Barnes & Noble. After successfully savaging all its competition, the retail book chain has been cutting stores, cutting expenses on the Nook, and most recently cutting its list of owners, as Liberty Media decided to sell its stake and run.
It’s enough to make a person think of dinosaurs and meteors.
Instead, I think of wildfires.
No, I’m not suggesting we put all of Barnes & Noble to the torch. After all, bookstores are my natural habitat. I can disappear more thoroughly there than Bilbo Baggins with a magic ring, coming up only for meal times. Maybe.
There’s a smell to bookstores you can’t get anywhere else, of paper and dust and dreams. Maybe a few other things besides; my beloved City News wrapped popcorn and pipe tobacco into every scent.
Best of all, a good bookstore is a center for serendipity. Wander the shelves and you’ll meet at least one title you’ve never noticed before. (Come to think of it, I met my wife the same way.) Amazon’s recommendations may be near-prescient at times, but it still can’t match the shuffle-the-deck surprises you get from just one hastily glimpsed cover.
Dead? Don’t bet on it yet.
This is where the wildfires come in.
Every Coloradan who’s survived the last couple of summers knows how a wildfire works in a forest. A lot of big trees get cleared out, some of them very old and very loved, that seemed like they’d stand forever.
And once the flames die down, there’s a space cleared. And new life can come to the undergrowth.
“I see room for smaller bookstores again,” one friend said on Facebook.
“Maybe this will allow the mom-n-pop local bookstores to come back,” another agreed. “That would be a good thing.”
It would indeed. And I see some of the spaces that could do it. Sellers who pay attention to the customer, who become crucial community gathering points, who don’t have the cumbersome supply chains and monstrous overheads of the world’s Bookzillas.
The chains seemed to offer every book in the world. But Amazon can do that, and do it cheaper.
The smaller ones offer you not just a book, but a home.
They’re out there. Heck, they’re out here. And they’re ready to write the next chapter.
Maybe I’m being unduly optimistic. Maybe the big chains clear-cut the bookstore landscape so that nothing’s left. But somehow I don’t think so. Book-lovers can survive this fire, every single one of us.
Even if it is a real Barnes-burner.