In Coast to Coast, a charming memoir about growing up in New York and Hollywood, Nora Johnson describes the book-buying habits of her father, Nunnally Johnson, the famous writer, producer, and director.
"At Martindale’s bookstore on Little Santa Monica, there was a ritual. Salesladies greeted him, asking if they could help. Well, he wanted so-and-so...did they have any ideas? With seeming carelessness they produced their favorite new novels. He listened carefully to what they had to say. A shrug from Miss. W., a little moue from Mrs. S., and the book might go back on the table or the shelf. But a nod, a couple of meaningful taps, sent it on its way. We always left with an armload and within an hour he’d be home in his corner armchair cracking the first glossy cover, a scotch and ice on the table next to him, a new pack of Old Golds.”
Bookselling has changed distinctly since then. As the indies of our youth have gone under, we have cursed the corporate pirates like Amazon and Alibris, but secretly shop there for specific titles. I occasionally pop into the tiny local independent bookstore, but it has some problems: (1) it seldom has what I need, (2) out of guilt I purchase books I’ll never read, and (3) I have to deal with a snotty attitude that bubbles out of comic-book boutique-y clerks’ heads: “I’d rather not wait on someone with a bike helmet.”
Some have great experiences at independent bookstores. Matt Cheney wrote in Conversational Reading on Feb. 24, 2009:
"When I know exactly what book I want, ...I just buy it on Amazon. Bookstores are where I go to spend an enjoyable hour and make serendipitous discoveries. And, yes, browsing is very much an addictive experience that bookstores can and should build on. Whenever I pass by a bookstore, I feel the pull. Despite everything Jeff Bezos has done to replicate this in his bookstore, I'm not drawn to browse Amazon in the same way."
Elizabeth Gettleman in Mother Jones in the article “What’s Wrong with Independent Bookstores?”(April 6, 2009) wrote:
“So we recently lost our local bookstore. MoJo really tried to support Stacey's on Market St, our research team went there before Amazon, we bought lots of gift certificates, we are sad to see them go. Well, mostly. I know this is sacrilege, but I actually thought the store was frustrating and found it a struggle to shop there. And Stacey's isn't the only guilty party.“
Let me say that I support some of the larger stores. Mager & Quinn in Minneapolis has an unusual selection. (I have found many used and out-of-print books here). I love The Haunted Bookshop in Iowa City. Kramerbooks and Afterwords Cafe in Washington, D.C., has a sophisticated atmosphere. My best indie experience: I loved living above a bookstore in grad school: rushing downstairs to buy Queen Lucia or a New York Times.
The mysterious, reclusive, brilliant bookstore owner used to serve as the middle man between you and the publisher. He/she changed your life by putting Catcher on the Rye or Anthony Trollope on the shelf. He/she preserved the classics.
But those days have changed - for better or worse...etc.