It’s something that only comes up when I’m asked to answer the dreaded “tell me a fun fact about yourself” question: I love independent bookstores, and years ago made a conscious effort to visit one whenever I’m in a new city. If you ask me about a city I have visited, I might not be able to give you the best restaurant recommendation, but I can definitely tell you about the bookstores.
You probably wouldn’t be surprised to hear that I can get emotionally attached to the ones I love. It’s not breaking news that bookstores have always struggled in cities where the rent is sky-high, and even more so now in competition with e-books and Amazon. However, I still wasn’t prepared for the news that two of my favorite places in New York City — the Drama Book Shop and McNally Jackson — are either moving or closing due to the rent hike.
The former has been a solid presence in the Theater District for more than a century, beloved by actors and playwrights, and the latter in Nolita for well over a decade, popular with locals and visitors alike. I managed to catch the last day of the Drama Book Shop a few weeks ago, not long after it was announced that Lin-Manuel Miranda and friends have bought the ownership and would work on relocation. The place was filled with people trying to buy up whatever’s left of the inventory, and the mostly empty shelves were covered in thank-you notes from frequent customers, most of whom are theater artists, who recalled fond memories from their drama school days and praised the store for its contribution to the theater community.
I thought then that closing was the worst fate that could befall a bookstore, until this past weekend when I went to Strand Bookstore for the first time in a while. The first thing that struck me, upon entering the store, was how crammed it was — not with people, but with their wide array of merchandise. Make no mistake, I’ve always loved Strand’s merch, so much so that I covered my backpack with pins from it. However, there was way more than I remember there ever being, and the merch shelves took up an overwhelming amount of space. There was barely any room left for people to stand, pick up a book and properly skim through it. Looking around the room, there seemed to be more coffee mugs, canvas totes, postcards and scented candles than there were actual books. I walked out of the store without even being tempted to buy a new book, and I felt almost more disappointed than when I heard about my other favorite shops moving.
Every bookstore I know sells some sort of merchandise, and there isn’t anything wrong with that being a supplement to the business. But if the front of the store is filled with merch, it says a lot about its importance. What I hadn’t realized before then that perhaps for many, independent bookstores have become more about aesthetic rather than practicality and quality. As a result, the focus of the business model has shifted from the promotion of book to selling the concept of reading. It’s the equivalent of Instagram-famous restaurants luring customers in with the prospect of getting the most likes on their next photo, rather than the promise of actually good food.
Such knowledge is incredibly frustrating even though I should’ve seen it coming, given how reflective it is of an era where profitability is often attached to social media exposure and trends. However, in my mind bookstores were never simply a business, but rather a cultural and artistic institution with a history of having direct impact on the world of literature. And while I believe that the measure for a good book shop should be based on selections, programming and maybe even just the atmosphere, it is the commercialization of the artsy reader aesthetic, as ridiculous as it sounds, that has become what large independent booksellers need to be good at in order to thrive, or perhaps even just to survive.
At what expense, though? Losing sight of their true identity and purpose? If we allow literary and cultural value to be made insignificant in the face of profitability, there may never be another place that can inspire young writers and scholars the way the Drama Book Shop nurtured actors and playwrights. Then what is the point of trying so hard to keep independent bookstores alive, if they’ve lost the heart and soul of what makes them different from Amazon in the first place?
But I must not be so hard on the bookstore owners alone. What this reveals is really only a part of a bigger flaw within our modern consumerist culture. The question is, if we continue to allow the commercialization of every possible aspect in our lives, tangible or intangible, in the end, what will we have left?
Andrea Yang is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Five Minutes ‘Til Places runs alternate Mondays this semester.