"Is it on Amazon?" This is the first question you hear when talking about books. Amazon isnt the only place to buy books, but you hear about it so often that soon it might become just that. Sure, books on Amazon are a couple of bucks cheaper, but then you have to pay for shipping. It might seem more convenient, but waiting a day or two to receive a book youve already paid for (but havent actually seen) is a gamble. The cover might be made of toilet paper, the text set in a terrible font, or, perish the thought, it may simply suck. Its a little like a mail-order bride. The pictures might look nice, but then she shows up with a Fran Drescher voice, or chews with her mouth open.
Chain booksellers arent much better. Selections are limited and uniform, with little account taken for local tastes or talents, and the books are chosen by how much publishers are willing to pay in steep display costs rather than by quality, or even popularity (I recently checked the Tyrone Borders, which had no Lydia Davis, Barthelme, and only one Carver).
All this aside, the biggest disadvantage, shared by both the chain booksellers and online retailing alike, is the lack of expertise a staff that not only sells books, but reads them. Nancy Alloy, owner and mastermind of Books at Park Place (website to come) has expertise. Alloy has been in the book industry since some of us didnt know the difference between hardcovers and teething rings. It is clear during my interview with Nancy that she has an encyclopedic knowledge of her store; she knows exactly whats in stock and where it is. But most importantly, she and her passionate staff love books.
Id like to think our store is more awesome than the chain stores because our store has a definite personality, and we are professionals, Alloy says, standing in front of the counter in her small but wildly eclectic store. And you certainly cant get that online.
Example: ask a question about the book Reading Lolita in Tehran at Amazon, and all you will get is recommendations for another Islamic girl book. Ask a question about the same book at Books at Park Place. Somebody has probably read it, and is thrilled to discuss it with you. If nobody has, they still will know about it, and can point you to more books that are actually like it, some new, some obscure.
We read book reviews, keep track of up-and-coming authors. We provide a personalized service to book-seekers that someone with a passing interest and a database simply cant."
Alloys passion for books started in her youth. Growing up, I used to spend hours in Haslams and I remember the sense of community. People used to hang out there, sharing the book experience with one another. Reading is seen as a solitary activity these days, but it doesnt need to be that way.
A community bound by shared love of the written word is something Nancy tries to generate among her own customers. Books at Park Place boasts an expansive selection of books, ranging from new bestsellers to used obscurities. It also has a large horror section, books on Paganism (St. Pete has a surprisingly large Pagan community), and is one of the few places that sell D & D games. The staff doesnt play, but Nancy respects a game that requires imagination and interaction with other, actual humans.
Look, Alloy says, pointing at two affable (if not slightly nerdy) young men in front of the D+D shelves. Its happening right now. The two men seem to be at ease and are carrying on a spirited conversation just out of our earshot.
The speed with which Books at Park Place has generated such a diverse community shows that Alloy is serious about recreating her happy youth at Haslams. The customers agree. Where else can a book person go to meet people? a customer eavesdropping on our conversation asks. At the bigger bookstores I'm afraid to talk. Here you can use your playground voice and nobody cares.
Aside from the community feeling, Alloy offers other services you wont find in anonymous goliath stores. Aside from having a wide array of both new and used books, Alloy is proud to say that she offers the fastest special orders in town; a book ordered Monday could be in on Wednesday, with no added shipping costs.
Books at Park Place is also very interested in the efforts of independent publishers and small presses which, sadly, is rare in todays bookstores. Chain bookstores arent interested in books unless they have a $30,000 advertising budget, and Haslams tries to charge a fee to feature local publishers' offerings (Seriously.). Alloys open-door policy for local writers and publishers is nothing short of astonishing. (In addition, all of the books I review in this blog will be available through Books at Park Place.)
Yet, despite all this positivity, places like Books at Park Place are on the brink of extinction. It may seem that the death of the independent bookstore is a little irrelevant in an age where you can get whatever you want online. However, ignoring places like Books at Park Place for the convenience of home delivery is a double-edged sword. Actually, it's more like trading a stack of gold bars for a scratch-n-sniff sticker, because if (or when) online booksellers put indies out of business, the only bookstore you will have will be a P.O. box. Make no mistake; the death of the indie bookstores is the death of a book culture, of a literate community, and nothing can take its place. What else is there? Coffee shops are nice, but hardly bibliocentric. And the library? Please. So spend your book allowances wisely, and support indie bookstores like Books at Park Place. If youre in Tampa, go to Inkwood. To insure the survival of community institutions like these, it becomes more and more urgent to actively support the indie bookstores who remain or when they're gone, we'll be left with empty bookstores and the knowledge that we've decided to trade them for the privilege of paying shipping costs and shopping by algorithm.
An older lady approaches us as Nancy and I stand by her counter, chatting. The woman is a freelance writer who appears to have more publication credits than most NYT columnists. She speaks with a soft Southern drawl, her vowels long and elegant, and shares with us some of the piece she is currently working on for the Times. It is something powerful, obviously close to her heart. When she finishes, she turns to Nancy and asks if the store has any of those "Cat Goes to Paris" books. Nancy grins.
I think we have a few.
As the lady swoops out of Books at Park Place, new books in hand, Nancy watches her go, thoughtful.
People should think about what they lose when these places go.
'Cause you wont get that on Amazon.