Physical layout of a used bookstore is largely determined by necessity. Steep stairs, narrow aisles, dark corners, too high shelving units, mismatched materials, old carpets, metal displays, damp floors, cold drafts, crammed sections, low ceilings, back alleys, broken ceramic tiles, musty smell, and the occasional bit of natural light. There is no blueprint for a used bookstore. They can be found in strip malls, tenements, street corners, carts, remodeled used car dealerships, trailers, barns, alleys, pedestrian shopping streets, malls, basements, and converted brick, farm, or ranch houses. The enjoyment of used bookstores comes from the creative inevitability of having to use the space given them.
Each founder brings a lot of baggage to the store. Supermarket meat deep freezers used as bargain bins, unattached toilets as seating, and some of the most creative shelving units imaginable. And some uncreative, like random stacks littered about the place, as, often, reading a newly received book is more important than getting the rest of the books off the floor.
When I lived in New York, there was a storefront hovel on East 4th Street, off the Bowery, that was a cross between a bookstore and a dumpster. No more than seventy-five square feet, the books were stored in layers. Along the walls, you could see that there were shelves, but long since books had been stacked in front of them. And then stacks in front of them. And then stacks in front of them. The stacks then grew, until they reached near the top of the shelves. The ceiling was less than seven feet high, and it took two steps down from the sidewalk to get in. Cut through the room was a small, narrow aisle that was no wider than two feet. It lead to a back room, where it was obvious the owner lived; a flimsy sheet separating the two areas. There was no name for this business. Never did I see this store open during the day, but only at night; late at night, when we were leaving the bar on the corner and heading home.
I am unable to pass by such a store without looking in to see what design they have used, and taking mental notes for my own creation. On West 4th Street, two people made the space crowded, and the insensible owner hovered the entire time. It was difficult to browse, as other perusers, leaving shows and bars, would see the light and be drawn in by the covers of the books that lay on top of the stacks. In the thin aisle would be a dance of sorts, until someone would be frustrated enough at the lack of privacy to leave. For all of its flaws, it drew me in because of the mystery of what lay beneath the stacks and stacks of bland stock. The original nature of the independent bookstore is unique because each founder is unique, something that will not die regardless of the megastore infiltration.
In her introduction to Antiquarian Bookselling in the United States: A History from the Origins to the 1940s, Madeleine B. Stern writes of the bookstores themselves, “Their place of business might be a dark and tiny hole in the wall, or it might be an elegant literary emporium with frescoed ceilings and multiple floors.” I have admired both. The former is good for the hunt, while the latter is much more calming.
Bookstores are created in one of two ways: either built-to-suit or a bastardized improvisation of what is available. Larger chain megastores are designed for maximum efficiency, with thousands of decisions made for every hypothetical contingency before the plans ever leave the drafting table. The cafes are often exposed to natural light to create an inexpensive ambiance. A simple visit to the bathroom requires a visit to at least three sections of product between the front door and stall. Clocks are forbidden so patrons will be get lost in the atmosphere and lulled into spending precious shopping time browsing books instead of at the hardware store, toy store, or other errand destination (much the same as at a casino). Flow is a major consideration. Focus groups and architectural psychologists have created the ideal Skinner Box. Senses of awe, and a warm familiarity, are as important as easy accessibility and stocking. On paper and in practice, they are temples designed to separate book lovers from their money while minimizing buyer’s remorsebrowse the new Walking magazine, buy the new Jan Karon novel, sit down and drink your latte.
There are many opinions about what makes a great bookstore, but when you really listen to people closely about what makes a worthy space they are talking about the books they found there. When you take away the exposed brick, narrow corners, dark woods, dangerous stairs, and aromatic smell of coffee what is left is the find. That book. It always comes down to the book. A great bookstore is defined by the book found there.
When the two-story Barnes & Noble megastore opened in South Burlington, it was only the third set of escalators in the entire state of Vermont. The first set of escalators was at the Burlington Square Mall in the city’s downtown. The second were at the airport. There had been a third in a department store on the corner of Church and Pearl Streets, but that was before my time. Since then a few escalators have popped up, most noticeable being the new Sears at the University Mall.
Until Barnes & Noble dropped from the sky, though, a big store could still all fit on one floor. It was not that it had sufficient square footage to require two floors, but that the philosophy of retail had started to take on levels. Four months after buying A Separate Peace, my moving to Vermont with my then-girlfriend Cathy coincided with the opening of this new Barnes & Noble megastore. It was the perfect job for me, one who is anxious about filling small talk with strangers, as it surrounded me a hundred other bibliophiles in a town where I knew no one. Our day was filled with the work of unloading trucks filled with books and setting up a brand new store, while our initiating small talk was about books, unloading trucks, and the brand new store. Burlington was also one of the sites experimenting with used books, and I was able to get the job managing the department. I worked there for over a year, cutting my teeth in their used book department before opening my own store.
These escalators represented the direction of economic change coming. This was not just a chain store, as Vermont was finding itself with plenty of those after losing its long war against Wal-Mart, but a colossal monument towards the brave new economy. While the expansive entryway and the huge amounts of stock were impressive, these foreign escalators signified the degree in which the retail environment had just leapt in the state. This store was big and comfortable. The escalators fascinated everyone who came to the new store.
Provincial Vermonters were unaccustomed to the device, but they faced another construct that caused quite a bit of mental discord: Freedom of choice. It is wonderful in theory, but a frightening concept when staring it in the face. For most, books were taken out of libraries, recommended by friends, culled from the limited selection of the local bookstore, or given at Christmas. Books are read one at a time. They are linked to community. Walking in the front door to Barnes & Noble, the entire two floors of books are exposed. Bookshelves fan out into one’s peripheral vision, framed perfectly by the escalators. Now every section had its own bestseller list. More covers were displayed than other bookstores had titles. By each door were green plastic baskets that supermarkets have. After two hours, the basket full, it became difficult to put down one without putting them all away. There were too many books. Customers often left the store exhausted. During those first few months some people just turned around at the door, having seen the sheer size and selection, and left.
Both the unfamiliarity with escalators and the staggering size of the new store combined for a unique problem in customer flow. Stunned by the selection, customers would ride to the top of the escalator while spellbound by the sheer volume of volumes. The natural reaction is to stop and take it all in. This they did as they ascended. Unaccustomed to the procedures and necessities of escalator travel, though, they would continue to not move at the exact spot the escalator dropped them off. The patrons behind them, also mesmerized by the stock and oblivious to the impediment of the stopped person suddenly at their nose, would suddenly be deposited into the back of the person stopped in front of them. In the jarred awakening of finding themselves rudely slamming into a stranger, both customers would freeze. Of course, as two people now stood at the top of the up escalator and both were frozen into inaction, the line of other customers continued steadily up. The next customer, too, would be both unaware of the problem and unable to stop progressing forward had they known. For the first few months parents were constantly falling over their children, teenagers over the elderly people clinging white-knuckled to the arm rail—which, to their despair, moved at a slightly different rate of speed—and strangers fell over strangers. One second a person would spy the awe inspiring cooking section, which sat at the top of the escalator, and the next they would find themselves on top of the previous rider who was suddenly sprawled out on the floor.
Because the escalators were narrow, inexperienced escalator riding parents could not ride next to their even more inexperienced children. Instead, these parents stood behind their child. This moment, where the child will stand watching the steps come out of the floor, attempting to time their feet to these moving stairs, is cute when business is slow, but tense during the rush of Saturday morning. The children would finally make the leap, not holding onto the moving arm rail, and fall back into the parent. Multi-children families were a greater problem. Parents with more than one child watched the first make it to the top alone while the hesitant other one stood at the bottom, unwilling to make the crucial leap. This would result in panic on the part of the parent, as their one toddler ran around the upstairs out of control. Bellowing across the entire store, Suzy, get over here right now!, that parent stood in fear of pushing the second child lest they create a lifelong fear of escalators. Sometimes the bolder child would get on the down escalator just as the mother and timid child began to go up. To the despair of management, the escalators quickly became a toy.
“This is not a playground,” a mother said of the escalator after a bookseller had scolded her son for walking up the down escalator.
“But there’s nothing to do,” the child had replied.
“Go to the children’s section. There’s book there.”
“Books are boring. I want to ride the escalators.”
“Well, don’t get caught then.”
I worked in Burlington’s Barnes & Noble megastore for over a year. We operated one of five used book departments in the nation—an experimental section they were hoping to replicate in college towns throughout the country.
After a time, though, the store lost its magic. The escalators, still one of the few in the state, no longer baffled customers. Selection, once overpowering, soon seemed quite limited. The laminate fake wood flooring started to peel, and a few Starbucks popped up to offer strong coffee elsewhere and compete with the local cafes. Most important, though, was that Barnes & Noble’s stock started to seem routine. Every bookstore had the new big thing, but those two hundred copies of that single title soon pushed out the more esoteric titles. That book could be had anywhere, and this bookstore lost its enchantment.