We’ve all been there. The sign says used books, or old books, or just books for sale, so we turn in the drive. Usually it is an old barn or a garage where the owner has stacks of used books on tables or tossed onto shelves — popular fiction from the last twenty years, at least one Arthur Hailey novel (for some reason it’s usually Airport), a stack of microwave cookbooks, too many self-help books and at least one Peanuts paperback. You know immediately there is nothing to see, but you have to stay a while so as not to be rude. And, of course, there is always the hope. The greatest finds do not happen in these stores, but the finds that do happen will often make the best stories.
So when I saw the sign for The Old Bookshop while driving through Cornish, Maine last week, my expectations were low. They probably shouldn’t have been if I’d paid more attention to the exterior which was freshly painted with a clear sign, but still, I’m a skeptical New Englander. So when I walked through the narrow door, I had that moment when expectations are confounded and possibilities open up. The first thing I noticed was the smell, which was of old leather, not mildew. Then (it was a bit dark) I saw the shelves stocked with rare and fine bindings, and beyond those more shelves of used books. Not carefully stacked and neatly lined up on the shelves, but clearly cared for and in their proper place. The store had its nooks and its crannies, and I quickly got disorientated as I went around one stack and past another, into a small room of Americana with a short stack of 25 Goodspeed catalogs propping up the last volume in a set of Lincoln’s writings. The moment I crossed that threshold from the light Maine sunshine into the dusky interior of the bookshop, I realized that I could not know what I was going to find but I wanted to find out.
I’m trying to understand what about a bookstore holds value for people. If the purpose of the bookstore is to distribute books, as some have claimed, that role has been successfully filled by the internet. Others argue that it is nostalgia for a way of life that is disappearing. Nostalgia presupposes some value that people found in the way things were and labeling it nostalgia demeans that value. When music aficionados continued to insist on vinyl long after digital had proven the format for storage and distribution, critics and commentators labeled it nostalgia and argued that it would pass, that vinyl would cease to be valued. The fact that vinyl albums continue to be sold and are now once again being produced puts a lie to that label. Disruptive innovation always involves both gains and losses, and the interplay of those two forces carve out the final role for the innovation.
Where a bookstore is concerned, I believe the value has partly to do with that experience I had entering the Old Bookshop in Cornish. I call it the space of chance, following from Doreen Massey’s book On Space. Dave Paulhus, the proprietor of the store, had created a space built from books, but so had the anonymous person who stored old paperbacks in his garage and called it a store. The nature of the two spaces has little in common beyond their basic building blocks. Although Paulus might not describe it thus, there is an artistry in the store he has created. It reflects him and his relation to the world around him. To enjoy his store is to appreciate a perspective he has on the world. If I had to compare one of these two barn-based stores to a successful chain like B&N, it would likely be that paperback seller, distributing what he found available without discrimination.