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Satisfaction found in little bookstores
Pico Iyer's op-ed column on the value of an independent bookstore.

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THINKSTOCK.COM
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Date published: 11/18/2012

SANTA BARBARA, Calif.

--There was once a little bookstore, tucked into an unglamorous mall on the wrong side of town, where few visitors were likely to stumble upon it. Its owner had opened a small shop in 1974 with a modest bequest from her mother, and she and her husband had had to dip into their life insurance funds to keep it going. People from across the county drove for miles to buy books there--and to see friends, to pick up free copies of the New York Times Book Review, to special-order out-of-print works no one else could be bothered to find.

But these days, so it was said, it was easier, cheaper--more fun--to shop online. A computer could read your taste better than you could. One click could bring you the world, radically discounted.

Just as Amazon.com was getting going, a large store called Borders came into the small town and set up a three-story emporium at its central intersection. This new palace sold CDs and boasted aisles full of magazines and cookies and coffee; thousands of books were sold at vastly marked-down prices; and it used the cozy chairs and community air of a neighborhood store to crafty corporate advantage.

But a few years later, to everyone's surprise, the huge citadel of books, next to a free, multistory parking lot and a five-screen cinema in downtown Santa Barbara, closed. Just one week before, on the last day of 2010, the sprawling Barnes & Noble bookstore across the street from it, in the chicest mall downtown, had also shut its doors. Then the Borders near the town's large public university closed.

Online retailers and e-readers had become ubiquitous. But the little bookstore called Chaucer's kept growing and growing, housing more books--150,000 and counting--in its overcrowded aisles than the central megastore had carried in a space six times as big.

How could this happen? Well, 24 of Chaucer's 26 employees work there full time, many of them for more than 10 years. They have an investment in the concern that the part-time workers in big-box bookstores usually do not.


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Pico Iyer is a presidential fellow at Chapman University. This essay is adapted from one in "My Bookstore," a forthcoming anthology in which 80 writers describe the bookshops they love.