The closing of Olsson’s Books earlier this week marks a sad footnote in current economic woes and a sad chapter in the plight of independent bookstores nationwide. I’ve been a devotee of independent bookstores all my life, even before I knew enough to call one by that name: The Book Cellar in Jacksonville, NC, during my childhood; Olsson’s here in DC during my years at boarding school in Alexandria; Book Haven and Atticus, among others, in New Haven, CT; and then, back in NC after college, Quail Ridge Books in Raleigh, the Regulator Bookshop in Durham, and McIntyre’s in Fearrington Village.
Olsson’s — and particularly the old (and even longer gone) Georgetown store — holds a special spot in my memory: the crowded aisles of shoppers, the towering bookcases brimming with books, the sense of whole new worlds of literature and of thinking opening up to me each time I browsed the shelves. That Olsson’s too provided what may have been the first bookstore signing I went to: filmmaker John Sayles with his novel Los Gusanos.
In my articles for North Carolina’s Metro Magazine, I continue to tout readings at bookstores like Quail Ridge and the Regulator and McIntyre’s and the other independents throughout the area there, and if I’m in town, I continue to show them my support. But I’ll admit that since moving up to Virginia — and particularly to the area of Virginia I’m in, Fairfax and Burke — it’s been tough to frequent independent bookstores as much as I’d like. I adore Politics and Prose, but I can’t just drop by there on a whim; when I attend a reading there, it requires planning and time and gas. And the same was true of Olsson’s, whose nearest branch was in Arlington — not as far as P&P but certainly not a stop on my way home from George Mason. Most times, out of necessity, I find myself stopping by Borders or the campus B&N instead; most times these days, I buy my books from Amazon.
A couple of years ago, Mason economist Tyler Cowen published a telling article on independent bookstores in Slate, one which explored our attachment to and affection for these stores — what Cowen called “a self-conscious desire to belong a particular community (or to seem to)” — and admitted that we might find at the indies some booksellers who truly love books in a way that a wage worker at a chain might not, but then he pointed out that the personal service we value and the access to obscure books we want might actually be better served elsewhere, despite those affections. As he wrote:
When it comes to providing simple access to the products you want, the superstores often do a better job of it than the small stores do: Borders and Barnes & Noble negotiate bigger discounts from publishers and have superior computer-driven inventory systems. The superstores’ scale allows them to carry many more titles, usually several times more, than do most of the independents; so if you’re looking for Arabic poetry you have a better chance of finding it at Barnes & Noble than at your local community bookstore.
And regarding the online giants, he wrote that
the fear is that the culture of literacy that indie bookstores help cultivate and nurture—the eccentric interests, the peculiar niches—will be lost in the routinized world of the superstore…. But with the advent of the Internet, the literary world has more room for independence—if not always in its old forms—than ever before. Amazon reader reviews, blogs such as Bookslut, and eBay—the world’s largest book auction market—all are flourishing and are doing so outside the reach of the major corporate booksellers….
The real change in the book market is not the big guy vs. the little guy, or chain vs. indie stores. Rather, it’s the reader’s greater impatience, a symptom of our amazing literary (and televisual) plenitude.
I’ll miss Olsson’s, but it’s the Olsson’s of distant memory I’ll miss, because circumstances have meant that I hardly ever got there these days. I don’t feel much real emotional attachment to the Borders nearby or to my Amazon homepage, but they tend to serve my needs, and sad as it is to say, sometimes convenience trumps idealism.
But then, sometimes it doesn’t. I’ll still make the trek to Politics & Prose whenever an opportunity presents itself, and a visit there is always a highlight of the week. And just a couple of months back, my fiancée and I drove four hours to Durham, N.C.’s Regulator Bookshop to hear a reading by novelist Tana French, and it felt fine to be immersed in the store’s quirky community of readers, to talk to a staff member or two, and to chat with all of them about their passion for books and for the store as a gathering place.
If I just had the chance, I’d drop by every few days or so — and that’s not just nostalgia talking.
— Art Taylor