Ex Libris: Losing a Bookstore
By Steve Donoghue
Many years ago, I was invited by an old friend of mine to take part in a funeral. He’d been the lazy proprietor of a off-the-beaten-path little bookshop in a sleepy little town since roughly the Crimean War, always carrying along with nominal business at the cash register, always there for a nice lengthy book-chat with his handful of regular customer, always happy to help any random strangers who happened to wander into the shop in search of directions, a bathroom, or sometimes a book.
It had been a peaceful existence, and since all the bookish people for two counties in all directions knew my old friend, his shop’s stock was always healthy with interesting items. I never left a visit empty-handed, even though he wouldn’t have minded in the slightest if I had.
Then the building’s owner had a fatal heart attack while in bed with his mistress, and the owner’s grown son, acting in a combination of financial greed and oedipal resentment, decided to put the building on the market for roughly 50,000 times more than it had cost his grandfather to build it in 1915. My old friend was curtly informed that he shop would have to go.
So he had a going-out-of-business sale, and when that had siphoned off as many books as could reasonably be expected, he had a kind of funeral for the shop. He opened a few bottles of wine, put out a few special treats for the cats, and invited over a few of his most regular (well, in terms of attendance, anyway) over to toast the shop before it disappeared forever. We told stories, and when we all tottered off in the wee small hours, we did so heaped with books our host had urged upon us. It was a pleasant evening, but even so, it was sad and strange to walk past that building a year later and see no trace of that old shop.
It happened again to me when I was working at a retail bookstore when one of its spinoff shops went out of business and had a going-out-of-business sale with a byzantine discount scheme. I was working the register for one day of that sale, and I panicked every time a customer brought up a book, wondering if I’d need Fermat’s Last Theorem to ring it up. But even so, once the shelves were empty, I felt that same little pang. It’s never easy, losing a bookstore.
We lost another one just this month. Book Depository, the UK online bookstore that was founded in 2004 and bought for an undisclosed-but-surely-obscene amount by Amazon in 2011. Even after its sale to a world-dominating corporation, Book Depository retained most of its quirky individual features. Foremost of these was pretty simple and certainly its biggest attraction: international shipping was always free. True, the books might take half a millennium to reach your doorstep, but fans of the site quickly came to cherish even those delays, which seemed oddly refreshing when contrasted with the get-it-almost-before-you-want-it delivery times at Amazon proper.
I bought books on Book Depository at a steady trickle over the years – mainly UK editions of books whose US editions looked hideous. But I was always a bit of an anomalous customer; I’d guess most of Book Depository’s customers in over 150 countries were using the site as one of their best places to find books that weren’t available in their own markets in any format. For those and many other customers, even after the site’s sale, Book Depository seemed like a perfect alternative to the big, bad Amazon.
Judging from news reporting, it’s entirely likely that Book Depository closed because Amazon isn’t quite so big and bad as it once was. The online retail giant confirmed that shuttering Book Depository was part of a larger contraction that also included firing thousands of Amazon employees. In such a fiscal contraction, Book Depository must have looked as twee and wasteful as my old friend’s little bookshop all those years ago.
Naturally, when I first learned the news, I logged on to Book Depository and made one last order. This was insane, since I’m up to the rafters in books already, but there are occasions when a little insanity is called for.
I ordered a UK paperback of Michael Magee’s debut novel “Close to Home,” an unflinchingly stark story of contemporary working-class Ireland. I ordered a copy of the UK paperback of Douglas Stuart’s second novel, “Young Mungo,” an unflinchingly stark story of contemporary gay romance in working-class Scotland. And just to shake things up a bit, I ordered a Penguin paperback copy of Fredrik Logevall’s John F. Kennedy biography, a fat little volume that covers JFK’s life up until 1956. It was weird to get that volume in the mail (eventually!) and realize that if I want a UK Penguin paperback of Logevall’s second JFK book, I’ll need to go somewhere else to get it.
Weird also to say goodbye to a bookstore that never had an actual brick-and-mortar presence. Turns out the sadness is just the same. It’s tough losing a bookstore, online or off.