In the Business of Sharing Knowledge
Sarah Stierch: Bookstore cat, 2012 (CC)
From Public Books:
When brick-and-mortar publishers and bookstores close, today as in the past, the unsold stock sometimes ends up in an indecorous heap. It’s one thing to know that about one-third of the books published in Europe before 1700 survive only in a single copy; it’s quite another thing to confront waterlogged books languishing on the sidewalk. Without the public funding or institutional backing enjoyed by many libraries, bookstores these days tend to have a hard time making ends meet, and the COVID-19 pandemic has only intensified these pressures. Should a bookstore have to close, we lament the disappearance of its social and intellectual ecosystem, even more than the loss of the books themselves.
Especially for antiquarian and other independent booksellers, there exists a tension between sharing knowledge and running a business. Bookstores sell books and book-adjacent items, of course. But they also may serve as editorial offices, publishing houses, classrooms, and lecture halls, not to mention cafés, play spaces, and reading rooms. Sites of collaboration and exchange, bookstores, like libraries, can help hold a community together.
A number of recent works warn against reducing bookstores to the financial bottom line. Kaouther Adimi’s novel Our Riches, translated from the French in 2020 by Chris Andrews, reconstructs a history of the bookstore that French-Algerian intellectual Edmond Charlot founded in Algiers in 1935. In Bookshops: A Reader’s History, translated in 2017 from the Spanish by Peter Bush, Barcelona-based critic Jorge Carrión weaves together notes from his bookstore pilgrimages around the world with anecdotes culled from books about books and reading. And D. W. Young’s The Booksellers, an earnest 2019 documentary film about the antiquarian book trade, follows a cast of collectors, archivists, librarians, and booksellers as they try to reinvent and diversify their craft, while selling what appears to be a trifling number of books. There’s no wide-eyed optimism in these three works. Their affectionate depictions of bookstores and booksellers instead ask us to consider what we’re in danger of losing.
Can lessons from the past help guide independent booksellers and their patrons as they navigate a book world in flux?