Treasure House Books in Harrison, Arkansas closed its doors a few weeks ago, adding to the Boolean-like body count tabulating the growing absence of non-virtual places where readers can go to fix their book jones. Since God is wholly Good according to St. Augustine, He cannot have created Evil, which is surely what the closing of any small business must be. Augustine handled this philosophical and theological paradox by calling Evil an absence of Good. "Evil is a hole in the ground" Augustine said. "It is an absence of earth waiting to be filled with Good." Now, there is hole in the cultural ground of Harrison, Arkansas that wasn't there before. I wonder what Good will fill it.
At the beginning of 2007 there were 19,000 independent bookstores in the United States and, according to the Independent Booksellers Association, they are closing at the rate of about one per day. By the time Susie retires and locks the doors at Books at Sow's Ear, she may be the last man standing. Maybe that will be too bad. Maybe that's just the way it goes.
Students of the book world say the main cause of these little deaths is the dominance of large chains like Barnes and Nobles, Books-a-Million, and Borders. Wal-Mart sells a lot of books too, and it probably has a lock on the mass market paperback trade, at least locally. "Media," whatever that is, is also said to play a part: people watch television, or get what information they need from the internet.
I doubt that competition from the big box retailers or the "media" has much to do with it. I suspect that what's really going on is that people simply don't read much anymore. And they certainly don't need to buy or read reference books: concordances, sets of encyclopedias and the like are so much cord wood these days. Save your children the trouble and haul them off to the recycling center before its time for you to be recycled.
So who does read these days? Home schooled children read. If I sell a copy of Wuthering Heights or Dante's Inferno, I can bet dollars to dimes that the customer is being home schooled. Older people read too, and they demonstrate a sometimes breathtaking diversity of interests: books on birds, gardening, mysteries, public policy, all grist for their intellectual mills. Among our best customers are local pastors who have voracious appetites for Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Karl Barth, and a surprising taste for tough guy crime fiction. I love to see our local vicars stroll in because I know that the coin of the realm follows.
Collectors also comprise a fair percentage of book buyers, but I don't know if they actually read the books they collect. On the other hand, I collect a few authors and always buy a good copy to put on the shelf and a tattered copy to read. My mother used to send me off into the world with two handkerchiefs, "one for show and one for blow" she used to say. I suppose that's the way of most collectors.
Today, there is no absence of earth, or bookstores, in Carroll County. Gazebo Books in Eureka Springs is our senior most colleague, and the It's a Mystery bookstore, which opened in May, has joined Sow's Ear in beautiful downtown Berryville. That there are three independent bookstores in our little county is a miracle friends. We look forward to sharing this miracle with you.