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Satisfaction found in little bookstores page 2
Pico Iyer's op-ed column on the value of an independent bookstore.

Visit the Photo Place
Date published: 11/18/2012


People come there just to browse through a carnival-like children's room of books and toys and games. They come there to meet dates, to receive personal commendations, often to buy nothing at all. They come there as to a community center, a sanctuary, or a trusted friend's living room (albeit a living room where Salman Rushdie is reading from his latest, and sometime-local Sue Grafton is sitting around for four hours to chat with her many fans). Chaucer's sells no coffee or remainders, but it offers teachers 20 percent discounts and holds two book fairs a year to raise money for local schools.

So perhaps the story of the bookstore stands for something larger than mere books. Most of us can get anything we want online these days--except for the tactile reassurance of human contact, the chance to do nothing at all, and a sense of connection that persists even after the electricity has gone off and the batteries run out. Convenience is not always an ideal substitute for companionship, and speed isn't infallibly the fastest way to well-being. Even the $2--or $10--discounts that corporations can offer may exact a cost at some deeper level that sometimes we find ourselves paying and paying.

When the two giant bookstores in the center of Santa Barbara closed, the owner of Chaucer's expressed her sorrow; more books were always better than fewer.

Besides, the passion she'd chosen to share was about something less visible than the bottom line. When the writer of this article was invited to give a reading at another new local bookstore--only to find that its owner had neglected even to buy any books to sell--he wasn't surprised when a worker from rival Chaucer's instantly responded to an emergency call and brought down copies from his store, to help out its new competitor, because some things matter more than mere spreadsheets.

One worker at Chaucer's, after his previous independent bookstore home closed down, took to driving 100 miles through the dark every morning to work at the Santa Barbara store, before driving back 100 miles every afternoon. Another, when I purchased a copy of Siddhartha Mukherjee's history of cancer, "The Emperor of All Maladies," told me that the book had shaken her profoundly, not least because she'd been diagnosed with cancer many years ago.

"You're OK now?" I asked. She certainly looked the picture of health.

"So it seems," she answered. "Not all terrible diagnoses prove fatal."

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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.