Bookselling at the End of the World

Stephen Sparks on These Perilous Times

On the afternoon of Wednesday, March 18, 2020 I stood in an empty bookstore and cried.

A friend had just sent a congratulatory text with a picture from the April issue of Alta Magazine. My wife and I were interviewed a few months ago for a profile of Point Reyes Books, the bookstore we’ve owned for three years. The editor chose to use a photograph of the three of us—my wife, our 14-month-old boy, and me—to accompany the profile.

We haven’t seen the magazine because our shipments are suspended, our store closed, the Bay Area, and soon, I imagine, the entire country, on a lockdown issued to curb the spread of the coronavirus. All but essential services are shuttered for the foreseeable future. We don’t know what the world will look like on the other side of this pandemic, if our businesses, unessential, will be a part of that world.

I looked at our son in that picture, who just a week ago started walking, taking those familiar wobbly and joyous first steps, falling and getting up again and again, and I cried.

*

I started a document called “Bookselling at the End of the World” on February 7, 2017, one month and one week after we assumed ownership of the bookstore in Point Reyes Station, a small rural town nestled into a bucolic landscape bordering a national seashore. The San Andreas fault runs through our backyard, which seems a convenient aid to help understand the major shifts happening in the book industry and our culture in this ongoing moment.

Trump’s inauguration had just happened and we were already reeling from the early intimations of how his administration would reorganize the country along harsher and more extreme lines. It felt then like being a bookseller was a necessary act of defiance: maybe it always has. It still feels like that—maybe it always will—but victory feels further out of reach, even as we prove our value every day by opening our doors to a community in need of connection, knowledge, imagination, conversation.

Maybe, I have to remind myself, victory isn’t what we should strive for. Maybe victory is an ideal, out of reach, and so we should strive for something more noble than winning. But what is that something better? To perpetually fight, I suppose. To fight every day for a world that is better for everyone.

Booksellers are great underdogs. We’ve got to be.

*

As time and energy permit, I open the document and type a few sentences: thoughts on styles of handselling; considerations of the off-kilter nature of time in a bookstore; the burden booksellers face to constantly confront the hardest things about their culture.

Maybe we should strive for something more noble than winning. To perpetually fight, I suppose. To fight every day for a world that is better for everyone.

Time and energy are precious commodities and as the months drag by, each fresh horror buried beneath a fresher horror, I lose momentum. It’s hard enough to be a bookseller, how much harder to write about it?

*

A bookseller must be a great listener, one who is adept at hearing what lingers unspoken and who, with keen intuition, is able to connect two mysteries: a reader and a book.

What is a bookseller to listen for on an afternoon when the store would normally be bustling with would-be readers, but is instead closed as a pandemic threatens to overwhelm the medical system and cost millions of lives?

*

A good bookstore is a peculiar nexus of feelings. It offers the comfort of the familiar, but also the lure of the unknown. Our job is to inhabit that unsteady space at the edge where cultural tides ebb and flow.

Minding the tides, as it were, doesn’t come without risk. Booksellers are surrounded with titles trumpeting the endless looming threats to our environment (We’re Doomed, Now What?) and democracy (Fascism, How Democracies Die, The Road to Unfreedom, etc); by books that bring to light the increasing inequality fostered by neoliberal economics or the decay of civilization or the myriad threats to our way of life… even our bestselling fiction has of late dwelled in darkness. (Great fiction has always dwelt in darkness, but rarely has that fiction been bestselling.) After I tweeted a picture of a utopian display I put up in the store as a modest countermeasure to this sense of overwhelming gloom, someone replied that it’s “interesting/depressing to think that a dystopian display could overtake the entire store.”

Of course, it’s not just the despair that lurks on the covers and within the pages of these books that causes concern. Our entire industry teeters on the brink of collapse. Margins are tight, rent is high, and as a consequence, wages are low; we exist in the shadow of a behemoth owned by the richest man in modern history, publishing CEOs earn salaries exponentially greater than ours; and the very technology we deal in is considered by many to be obsolete, our profession, for those of us able to stick around long enough to call it such, seems by many to be a quaint relic of a bygone age.

*

And yet.

My tears that afternoon weren’t entirely out of concern for our business or fear for our child’s future. I was also overwhelmed by the outpouring of support we’d received in the days after announcing we would be closing the store to do our small part to stem the spread of the coronavirus.

We made the decision a few days ahead of the lockdown order and while it was the hardest business decision we had to make since buying the bookstore, it was ethically the easiest one. We were the first business in town to close, despite record-setting business in the days leading up to closing.

After sending an email announcing our decision, we received dozens of replies thanking us for the care we demonstrated. We’ve received hundreds of online orders from people who understood the potentially devastating effects an indefinite shutdown could have on a bookstore. These orders continue to come in, and we are not alone. Across social media, our colleagues at independent bookstores are broadcasting the same message of gratitude and humility and hope.

Everything feels tenuous at the moment, as the edge we’ve been skirting inches closer, but that community of readers who value the unique and essential space a bookstore inhabits in our culture feels stronger than ever.

Stephen Sparks
Stephen Sparks
Stephen Sparks is a reader, walker, and the owner of Point Reyes Books.





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