Zen and the Artful Beauty of the Independent Bookstore

We all have our favorite bookstores. Bookstores are like the right pair of boots, or the perfect blue jeans. They fit you like a glove. Yes, the right bookstore can make a day. The right bookstore is more than the sum of the books within it, instead some alchemistic crucible forcing a reaction emerging gold from wood pulp and ink. Yes, we all have our favorite bookstores.

I do not think anyone has ever seriously thought about it, and in response to being asked about their favorite bookstore, replied in the hushed tones reserved for the altar or for the hallowed bricks of the City Lights Bookstore in my home city of San Francisco, (bricks I suspect that if you approach them right might just spill their memories of Ferlinghetti, Kerouac, Ginsburg and Cassady), and replied that their favorite bookstore was Amazon. After all Jeff sells just about everything. He sells it cheap, he delivers it to your door, or a locker nearby, and you can find anything you are aware that your heart desires, and if he can’t Amazon sure can order it in for you. It is junk food books. It is the crack of intellectual satiety. It is immediate and soulless. Travelling in endless loops around the search engine looking for inspiration is a Sisyphean task doomed to failure.

I did not know that today I wanted The Genius of Andy Warhol, by Tony Scherman and David Dalton. I did not know I wanted it, but I needed it as much as a fish needs water, or my lungs need more air than a mask allows. You know who did know that someone, not necessarily me, but someone, needed that book today of all days? The delightful Forest Bookstore at 1748 Buchanan Street Plaza (between Post and Sutter), San Francisco.

My son saw me coveting a tiny little two pack set of pictures of Warhol and Marilyn Monroe, their faces comprised solely of bar codes. I did not know I wanted that either but I did. That led him to then point out the handsome red spine neatly slotted into it’s rightful place on the shelf. I picked it up, I weighed it in my hands. I vaguely remembered reading a review of it, and wanting it then, but forgetting about it. Amazon Jeff would never think to remind me that I needed to read that book, that escaping back into the streets of New York would soothe my pandemic irritations. Jeff relies on you to know what you want, and scratches that immediate itch. You end up bloated and lazy, floating between the same old tired pap you always read. You cannot feel a book, smell it, touch it when you buy from Amazon. You cant open it at a random page, find what is within it pleasing, and hold it tightly, resolving that you would never go back and check if Amazon sold it cheaper, because places like Forest Books need to stay open. Forest Books provided the prompt for something that gave me deep joy and deserved recompense for their ability to curate a collection.

And what a collection it is! Eclectic, stubbornly wavering between comforting quick reads and beautiful old things with carefully loved pages. You want a collection of Patti Smith’s photography, they have it sitting there tempting you, laid out carefully on a low shelf, waiting for you to pick it up and try it on. Books on Buddhism, religions of all flavors, culture of various incarnations, they have books meant for a cup of tea and Joni Mitchell on low and soft, and books which beg you to turn up Radio Ethiopia and shout along with Patti about how Ain’t it Strange. Histories and biographies. Art and poetry. I saw a particularly lovely collection of Neal Cassady’s letters which I hope will wait for me to come around again, and a gorgeous hardback of Ginsburg’s Howl which begged to be opened and appreciated by the right pair of hands and eyes.

Yes, I found my bookshop.

City Lights intimidates me, it is too hip for me, and I just can’t hang with it, I never feel quite welcome or quite comfortable browsing it’s shelves. It is not their fault, it is just a clash of personalities. The sweet Russian Hill Bookstore on Polk with its’ cute collection of gifts and knicknacks alongside the books is fine for a browse and there are always good priced used volumes, but it is not quite my cup of darjeeling and goat milk. But that is the thing, there is a bookstore for every traveler, every reader and their varied personalities and interests.

Which is why I feel so strongly about asking my fellow writers and readers, to remember your local independent bookstores. We will lose these important spaces if we don’t use them and give them our money. I’m a realist, I’m also someone who pays for Prime every month, gotta have my free delivery of hemp protein powder and tea bags that no local store sell. I am not innocent. I am that indulgent consumer as much as the next celiac vegetarian with a penchant for smoothies.

However I fear for a future where the heart and soul of our communities, the very life breath of artistic endeavor are chewed up and spat out by the mega-corp of Jeff Bezos. I fear for a future where we will become spoon fed and lazy, instead of rigorous and active. I fear we will have no poetry readings, no meditation spaces, nowhere people meet people who have similar artistic interests. I fear we will lose a little bit of what makes humans special. I fear we will lose the magic not to mention the livelihoods of the interesting and diverse people who make a living from collecting and selling happiness in pages.

In Forest Books I fell into a daydream where a large Oni from Japanese Shintoism, branded with the Amazon logo across its bright blue hide, was met in a forest by a small but protective incarnation of Inari O-kami; the Oni setting fire to the branches but still the little fox-god held it’s ground quiet and intent, hanging intricate folded paper streamers and putting out fires. This is the peace that the right bookstore can bring.

As I made my purchase the friendly and sage owner of the store, at least I presumed he is the owner (I suppose the last place I should judge a book by its covers is in a book store), slipped a little bookmark between the pages of the object of my affections, and smiled at me. “I hope you find the quote on the back of the bookmark interesting and appropriate,” he said, as I exited the softly lit store and spilled back out onto Buchanan. It was only when I was lining up outside Nijiya waiting to get inside to buy my regular diet of pumpkin and tofu, miso and bitter melons, when I had the urge to peek. I wondered what he meant. We had had a previous small conversation where I bemoaned the state of the world’s domination by Amazon, and the faceless bland mundane evil of their all consuming quest to sell everything to everyone. He had remembered our conversation, because he had picked out a bookmark with a quote from Gary Synder from his work Earth House Hold on the back of it in neat small typeface:

“No one today can afford to be innocent, or indulge himself in ignorance of the nature of contemporary governments, politics and social orders. The national politics of the modern world maintain their existence by deliberately fostered craving and fear: monstrous protection rackets. The “free world” has become economically dependent on a fantastic system of stimulation of greed which cannot be fulfilled, sexual desire which cannot be satiated and hatred which has no outlet except against oneself….”

This is why we venture out to make human connections. This secret handshake of human to human saying, I see you and I see the problems that face us all. It is unity and a strength in knowing that we are not alone in our fears and reservations. This is exactly what Amazon and their rampant devouring of small businesses and human connections is destroying. We cannot let them. There are enough of us that say ‘enough’, that recognize the need for humans to maintain connections with other human beings, because, boys and girls, we are all in this together and no one ever gets out of here alive.

If you are ever in town, yes go and pay homage at the shelves of City Lights, but don’t forget there are other infinitely worthy and interesting independent bookstores to visit. Forgive me for rushing off….I have a cup of tea and a new book to read.


  1. Louise Gallagher

    Wow. Wow. Wow. I can’t pick just one phrase or image. I must pick it all.

    But…. that quote. Heart-stopping in its truth and light.

    Thank you!

    We have lost many of my favs here in Calgary. There are now but an isolated handful that help quell the erosion of our humanity.

    1. The Paltry Sum

      Thank you, Louise! I appreciate the response, Synder is great, isn’t he! It is so sad to hear of the demise of your local bookstores, I hope those remaining continue to hold the line against Amazon!

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