Bookstores Serve Ideas and People: In That Way They Are Essential
Lucy Kogler Contemplate the Future of Public Space From
the Privacy of Isolation
Tillie Olsen’s short story ”I Stand Here Ironing” has served as a metaphor for pretty much every situation in my life. Not the content, necessarily, it so specific to motherhood, but, certainly, the emotions and fears conveyed. The story’s title identifies a domestic act, performed primarily (at that point in history) by women. As she stands, she needs no permission to use her isolation and solitude to think, really think. I stand here ironing… and you have no control over what I am thinking, hoping, wishing.
I sit here isolated: from my fellow booksellers, from my community of book people, from customers. My thoughts, hopes and wishes are crazily various. I type and I send, and I compute. I and my co-workers do the work necessary to keep the hope of having community return to a place that will survive. To an occupation that will survive. To a historical ideal that will survive: bookstore. Booksellers are now the cohort that must allow for an emotionally expansive way of thinking about the future as we isolate but remain part of a collective.
And what if bookstores don’t survive? What if, as ironing, people get used to someone else doing it? We send things out to be attended to by some other and never see who is engaged in the doing. What if the new normal is buying everything online because you never have to connect with anyone in a physical space?
What if a more acute fear sets in? One that isn’t currently in place? We are still just learning how to pay attention. How to take orders. How to let go of this need for self above others. What if we can never get back to our need for community in all the ways we have in the past?
Grocery stores will survive because they are inculcated into our routines. We need food and will go to where it physically is. But books? Do we need to go to where they physically are? I believe we do have this need to go to the place where we can find people who respect thinking, individuality, freedom of speech, and ideas of all sorts. Where these workers, booksellers, will embrace (metaphorically) ideas of self and other and help us move forward, or help us cope, or help us understand, help us learn, help us to find and spread joy.
I imagine that as we stand, isolated in place, that like the daughter in this short story we will suffer neglect—not because we aren’t seen as having value—but because right now it is too hard to work around this larger issue of cultural adaptation to a threat. A neglect based on what is considered “essential” business.
Bookstores are the kind of lifelines that often go unnoticed, are underestimated, are underutilized. We serve ideas and people. Ideas and people. We are so much more than just commerce. And that is why once this crisis is contained, over, something… we will—with the help of the government—be able to rebound.
We may be hobbled. Some of us may have to permanently close. Our community will be lesser for having lost them. Some of us will have to hire new staff members because we couldn’t afford to keep people and so our bookstore family will be diminished. We have found new resolve in our relationships with publishers who are seeing, with our competition’s current deemphasizing of books, our true and lasting import. This is exciting and comforting.
My deepest hope is that this new arrangement and recognition will remain a factor in our relationship with publishers. That publishers will admit that indies are and always have been their canaries in the publishing coal mine and that now, instead of sending us down the mine hoping we survive, they will give us the discounts and other incentives needed to stay competitive.
Those who know me, know it is my way to start at the bottom of the abyss and pull upward. I am not glass full/half empty. I am glass: broken. However, even I believe that when it comes for us to de-cocoon as businesses, we will fly.
The last line Tillie Olsen’s story is: “Only help her to know—help make it so there is cause for her to know—that she is more than this dress on the ironing board, helpless before the iron.” Booksellers are not helpless under the iron of publishing. And this moment in time identifies most acutely the cause for our worth to be acknowledged and celebrated.
I think now of lines from T.S. Eliot’s “East Coker”—FOUR QUARTETS:
To emulate—but there is no competition—
There is only the fight to recover what has been lost
And found and lost again and again: and now, under conditions
That seem unpropitious. But perhaps neither gain nor loss.
For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.
The “rest” is our responsibility and our business as citizens. Our business as booksellers is to make certain that bookstores not only survive, but that we will thrive again through these cycles of losing and finding, and losing and finding.