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The Global Phenomenon of Local Bookstores

Leeron Hoory By Leeron Hoory Published on December 2, 2016
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For many readers, a bookstore is not just a place to buy your next book, but a place of reference to enjoy perusing the shelves for hours. As e-readers become ubiquitous, and Amazon ever-present, independent, and even chain bookstores are slowly facing extinction, even if recently there has been an encouraging upswing for independent bookshops. In Footnotes from the World's Greatest Bookstores cartoonist Bob Eckstein illustrates and writes about treasured independent bookstores around the world, their owners and their customers.

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The project evolved from a 2014 New Yorker illustrated series of New York City’s endangered bookstores. From there, Eckstein compiled a list of 150 international local bookstores around the world, some of which he visited personally, others through travel guides or word of mouth. He ultimately narrowed that down to the 75 that appear in the anthology.

While the book highlights the quirky, individual personalities of local bookstores, Eckstein’s intention is to go beyond the ones he illustrates here to speak about the nature of local bookstores as phenomena neither limited by time or place. Eckstein discovered many similarities among the shop owners he interviewed throughout his two years of research. From stories about a shop cat and tales of marriage proposals inside the store, there is a universality to these tales.

Each illustration is overlaid with short anecdotes from the owners, favorite customers, or Eckstein’s own thoughts. In Chicago, a bookstore that he visited twice didn’t want to talk to him for attribution, but, he writes, “I can’t help it, this only made me feel even more special, like that girl in high school who won’t speak to you.”

Around the world, the stores have varying defining qualities that make them landmarks in their cities. In Tokyo, Kanda-Jimbocho is a “book town” with around 150 bookshops, the biggest market for secondhand books in the world. In Buenos Aires El Ateneo Grand Splendid turns a 100-year-old theatre into a bookshop, where the stage is a café, and the opera boxes are reading rooms. In Nanjing, China, customers must go through a tunnel lined with books leading to a former bomb shelter, and now the largest “hidden” bookshop. In London, Words on the Water is the city’s only floating secondhand bookstore that holds poetry slams and live music events. Un Regard Moderne in Paris is a tiny shop that’s easy to miss, housing thousands of art and culture books where only four or five people can fit in at a time.

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Despite the verdict that local bookstores have been in decline, many are flourishing from entrepreneurial spirits. In Argentina, artist Raul Lemesoff created a mobile bookstore called Weapons of Mass Instruction from a 1979 Ford Falcon with a turret. It carries over nine hundred books, and he hands the books out for free. Lemesoff has been around the U.S., Buenos Aires, and The Hague, Netherlands where he was commissioned to recreate his mobile library in 2010. In Union, Connecticut, on a highway between Massachusetts, a restaurant allows people to choose three books for free books when they’ve finished their meal — they’ve given away over 2 million so far.

Another subject that becomes apparent from this collection is the books’ own physicality. They are heavy and take up space. Giggles: Biggest Little Bookshop in Chennai, India, displays twenty different books everyday, because there is not nearly enough space in the shop to show them all, and even entering the shop is a challenge. In New York City’s Three Lives & Company the owner says they rearrange all the bookshelves so that no two books of the same color appear next to each other. Then there’s the bookstore in Alabama, where each copy is signed by the author, but they are sold at retail price.

Eckstein includes the date of birth of these bookstores giving them a real persona. Some of the stores included have already shut down. It’s interesting to note that he does not include their addresses. Given the hyper-locality that comes with a local bookstore, where it becomes an essential part of the neighborhood, embedding itself to the block as a landmark for people to navigate around, it may seem counter intuitive to leave out the street names. But it also creates an international dialogue between the stores, placing them, but not defining them to a specific location.

When the 75 bookstores are put together, they illustrate how bookshops are both a hyper local and global phenomenon. They are spaces for community-gathering, places for readers to find refuge, a cultural hub for people to talk about topics of interest.

Yet they are also places where each shelf holds the lifework of hundreds of people. Those working in bookshops, as well as customers, are often writers, too, Eckstein notes, and wonders: “Is there a space with more fulfilled and unfulfilled dreams?” The anthology celebrates these unique places while also highlighting concerns about the future. Yet Footnotes avoids falling into the worn narrative of nostalgia for an industry in decline. Instead, it chronicles rare spaces filled with emotional investment, inspiration, and endless stories from the people who run bookstores and those who love them. 

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    Leeron Hoory is a writer based in New York City with a focus in arts and culture.

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