Long before I heard a clerk spelling out 'C-A-R-L M-A-R-K-S' in a Borders many years ago, I had my doubts about the big chain bookstores. When I'm seeking new spoils--from novels to philosophy, poetry to comics--I try to support independent bookshops.
But why? Prompted by the recent Independent Bookshop Week, I wrote a brief celebration of these excellent establishments for Meanjin magazine (another fine old literary institution). A sample:
‘Now I know what I’ve been faking all these years.’ So says Private Benjamin in the film of the same name, after a tryst with her lover. I felt this way about my first independent bookshop. I had been making all the right noises for years, but suddenly I realised what I was missing.
Growing up in a provincial town, literary choices were thin: the mall bookshop in the next, bigger town, the newsagent's, or my parents. I picked up The Celebrated Cases of Sherlock Holmes in the first, and Eric van Lustbader’s The Ninja in the second. (Learning about sex from a straight man’s depiction of queer women was, in hindsight, not so helpful.) If I wanted something unusual, my folks were always liberal with their literature: from Gödel, Escher, Bach to Akira. I was lucky in this. But my curiosity still moved within narrow limits, the blinkers of schooling and home life.
It was not until I started university that I realised the extraordinary universe of reading out there. This was partly my studies: the badly photocopied extracts with lecturers’ scribblings, the library aisles with wholly new names.
But it was also independent bookshops. They stocked the latest from overseas publishing houses, and rare editions of ancient classics. They had sections packed with surprises from many eras and regions: virtue ethics from feudal China, socialist verse from Greece. The shops of my youth ran on safety. The same editions of the same bestsellers, by the same handful of authors. This is still how the big chains work. Like advertising, it is basically conservative, devoted to what is already popular. The independent bookshops took risks with authors, styles, schools of thought.
You can read the whole essay here.