40 Bookstores in 40 Weeks: Or, How to Get Through a Pandemic
J. David Gonzalez on the Habit-Forming Pastime of Buying Books
Perhaps a little background is in order. In November 2019, I stepped away from my job at Skylight Books where I worked for seven years, six as events manager. I loved that job. I thought I was good at it too. But we had a kid, a three-year-old, my wife traveled constantly for work, and the cost of childcare added up quickly.
One night, my wife suggested I leave Skylight, go house-dad, and re-apply myself to my own writing the way I had before we had a kid, at least for a year, see how it goes. I dismissed it out of hand but, my wife being my wife, she laid out all the ways in which it made sense for our family. My wife, being my wife, was right. My time at the shop had come to an end. For a few shimmering months, from December 2019 to about, say, the end of February 2020, everything—the full docket of dad responsibilities, me hitting my daily word count—was going according to plan. Then came Covid. But this isn’t my parenting-in-the-time-of-coronavirus essay. That’s best saved for another day, another publication.
This is the essay where I confess to suffering from an inordinate amount of anxiety surrounding the financial well-being of indie bookstores around the country, and how I tried to manage that anxiety by ordering a book (or two) from a different indie, one week at a time. Recently, I hit forty weeks. Meaning, since the start of the pandemic, I’ve ordered books from forty different bookstores around the country.
You see, I love indie bookstores. The universe, in all its infinite wisdom, blessed me with the privilege—yes, privilege!—of being born in Miami. As a result, I was at a young and impressionable age when my mom first walked us into Books & Books, (the original location, mind you). I can still recall just how different it felt from, say, the Books-A-Million, located in a strip mall over in Kendall, or the Waldenbooks inside Miami International Mall. I’ve been trying to chase that dragon ever since.
Whenever I traveled (back when traveling was a thing) I sought out bookstores, at least two, possibly three—the indie, the used bookstore, and the comics shop. I have stacks of business cards and bookmarks from shops I’ve visited, t-shirts and totes galore. Because of my time working at Skylight, I grew to admire and befriend a great many more stores around the country and—and I hope you’ll believe me when I say this—I came to realize that sometimes, the books are beside the point. It’s the booksellers, the store’s point of view, its credo, and its aspirations. It’s the sense of community that a bookstore engenders, the way it knits itself into the fabric of a neighborhood. It’s the way it introduces new perspectives, new voices, new ideas to a public curious for them. Independent bookstores are, now more than ever, shelters in a very, very tumultuous storm.
To imagine a world bereft of indie bookstores, their doors shuttering en masse as a result of the pandemic, was to imagine one of the very worst possible futures. And so I tossed that particular anxiety right on top of all the other ones—global pandemic, fascist takeover, irreversible climate disaster, soaring unemployment, police brutality and its attendant protests, the impending general election, etc., etc.; did I forget to mention that my wife was pregnant with our second child?—and did one small thing, once a week, in order to feel like I was fighting for the kind of world I wanted to live in, the kind of world I wanted to leave to our kids. I began ordering books.My wife asked me how much longer I planned to do this and I answered by simply throwing my hands up.
I started in my own backyard, with my beloved Skylight. Then ordered from friends over at East Bay Booksellers (Oakland), Brazos Bookstore (Houston) and Community (Brooklyn). I turned to my hometown and ordered from Books & Books (naturally) and from Dale Zine, a sensational artbook shop run by a husband and wife (and Pekingese) team. I ordered from shops that I’ve never been to but greatly admire like Pilsen Community Books and Women and Children First (both in Chicago), Point Reyes Books (Point Reyes, CA), The Raven (Lawrence, KS), Book Moon Books (Easthampton, Mass) and Riff Raff (Providence, RI). The pile of books atop the shoe rack by our front door continued to multiply as my ability to lose myself in literature evaporated.
I grew a mustache, started combing my hair like Colin Farrell in Miami Vice. I encased my daughter’s toys in ice, then let her sit outside with a small mallet, just to give her something to do.
I ordered from Black-owned businesses like Eso Won (LA), Mahogany Books (DC), Loyalty (Silver Springs, MD), Beyond Barcodes (Kokomo, IN), Uncle Bobbie’s (Philly), and Lit Bar (The Bronx). My sleep patterns went completely haywire, often resulting in my staying awake on the couch, late into the night, early into the morning, watching god knows what on the television, while holding a second, smaller screen in my hand, refreshing Twitter and Instagram, back and forth, back and forth.
Despite my personal misgivings regarding Bookshop.org, its affiliate program allowed me to order from shops like Malvern (Austin, TX), Magic City Books (Tulsa, OK), and Duende District and Solid State (both in DC). I circled back to California and ordered from Other Books (Boyle Heights), Mysterious Galaxy (San Diego), Bookshop Santa Cruz (Santa Cruz), and Children’s Book World, Vroman’s and Diesel (all in LA).
Our second daughter was born in September, during the middle of a heat wave, at the height of a catastrophic wildfire season. My wife and I and the baby spent three days in the hospital and when we returned home there was a box of books waiting for me. My wife asked me how much longer I planned to do this and I answered by simply throwing my hands up. I looked at which states hadn’t yet been represented and ordered from Avid Bookshop (Athens, GA), Malaprops (Asheville, NC), Square Books (Oxford, Miss) and Moon Palace (Minneapolis, Minn). And on and on and on.
When I first started this truly Sisyphean task back in March I, perhaps like you, thought to myself, how long could this pandemic last? Three months? Four, tops? I had no idea that I’d be sitting here nine long, arduous, anxiety-riddled months later, with a list of forty shops and damn near sixty books that I’ve yet to crack open. Did I, at all, in any way, help? I have no idea. But what began as an excuse to give back to an industry that has given me so much, suddenly grew into a compulsion, with a momentum all its own. Will I stop now that I’ve reached the rather inglorious benchmark of forty indie bookstores? Unfortunately, I understand all too well just how critical the holiday shopping season is for the solvency of an indie bookstore. And with the pandemic raging so much worse now than it did back in March, indie bookstores will continue to struggle, will continue to operate more like fulfillment centers than the community hubs most shops aspire to be.
I don’t know if I can keep this up. My wallet, for one, is begging for mercy, to say nothing of my bookshelves. But I don’t see a clear way out of this. The spreadsheet I made to track my progress has about a dozen or so shops that I never quite got around to, their names haunting me like forlorn orphans. So I come to you, dear reader, asking you, pleading with you really, won’t you please snatch this baton from me? Find your nearest (or furthest!) independent bookstore and help make their holiday wishes come true. You never know. Your order could be the one that helps keep their lights on, their doors open. Besides, this pandemic has to end sooner or later, right? Right?