Why does this matter? After a Joshua Ferris reading at an independent bookstore the other night, a friend of mine proposed that our cultural lives are forged by a confluence of information and experience. Information – that Rolling Stone gave the album Born to Run five stars, for example – is a perfectly reasonable way to get a handle on a work of art. But to experience "Born to Run" exploding off the Delaware Memorial Bridge at night, in the summer, with the windows down and a person you love in the passenger’s seat, is to find it seared forever in one’s soul, like Marcel’s madeleine.
The corporate book-purveyor, armed with the best market research money can buy, directs information toward consumers. If I want to find out what Barnes & Noble thinks New Yorkers are likely to want to buy, the downstairs tables at the Union Square B & N can’t be beat. And there are fine books on those tables. But as Walter Benjamin observes, "The acquisition of books is by no means a matter of money or expert knowledge alone." The experience of the Barnes & Noble – quality controlled, wood-veneered, perfectly odorless – disappears as soon as one is out the door.
A great bookstore, by contrast, is a staging ground for experience.
I don’t know why it took me so long, but I finally wandered into Portland’s "Yes Books" store last week. A great bookstore – none of the homogenized experience for you there. And more half price books than my tiny mind could stand – I fled, before I spent my lunch money for the next three months. Stacks of books all over the floors; grainy black and white pictures of authors hanging on bookshelves – apparently from the spines of other books; no comfy chairs, no coffee bar. Don’t get me wrong, I like my comfy chair, I like my coffee, and I’ll bet you do too, but you should check out Yes Books.