Several months ago, I recorded a PBS documentary about independent bookstores, a subject very near and dear to my heart. And yet, it took me until today to watch it. I think it was fear keeping it saved on the PVR; fear that it would reveal my plans to open my own bookstore for what they really were — a silly little fantasy, not grounded in reality.
Paperback Dreams is the tale of two specific independent bookstores in the United States — Cody’s Books in Berkeley and Kepler’s Books in Stanford — but the overarching message is about the value of independent bookstores to the community, the various factors that are contributing to their decline, and why we’ll miss them when they’re gone.
The documentary was equal parts inspiring and terrifying. Inspiring because the founders of these bookstores — which later became cultural institutions — were just ordinary people who believed in books and ideas, and wanted to share them with others. Terrifying for pretty much the same reason — they really believed in what they were doing, with a conviction that I’m not sure still exists in the industry. One memorable story from Paperback Dreams concerns the publication of Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses — Cody’s Books was fire-bombed for carrying the controversial book, and yet the store’s staff refused to pull the book off the shelves, as other stores had.
The most heart-breaking moment of the documentary, however, was watching Andy Ross — owner of Cody’s Books — during the last day of operations of one of the store’s three locations. As customer after customer stopped to speak with him — sharing their sadness at the store’s closing, their assertations that it was their favourite bookstore and that they always shopped there — finally his bitterness bubbled over. If the members of the community loved the store so much and shopped there as often as they now claimed, would the store still be closing?
I’m still digesting many of the lessons contained within Paperback Dreams, but here’s the one that I’m going to try to act on more often: don’t take your local independent businesses for granted. Not just bookstores, but the local restaurants and clothing boutiques and grocery stores that make each community unique and personal.
It’s easy to support local businesses in theory, but actually spending money there — regularly — is what will make the difference, to them and to the community.
More information about Paperback Dreams, including a trailer, is available on the filmmaker’s website.
UPDATE: Seems I wasn’t the only one watching Paperback Dreams over the holidays. Check out this INDEX // mb blog post with additional thoughts on the documentary