On a lazy Saturday afternoon this summer, our family of six was ambling through the local streets of Plattsburgh, New York, skirting along Lake Champlain. Taking in the local storefronts and dining options, we happened past a bookstore that looked legitimate in size and friendly enough for young kids, so we went in. We spread out, heading to various aisles and floors to browse. Not long after, I heard my husband’s voice respond to what must have been my son’s question about the worthiness of the store’s contents. “This is actually a very good bookstore.”
The appreciation in his voice wasn’t because we had found a serious bookstore outside of a major metropolitan area. It was a reference to the depth and caliber of books housed on the shelves of this small town book shop—old collections of the classics mingled with well-stocked sections in biography, humanities, and science fiction. A multi-page floor plan for The Corner-Stone Bookshop lists over 200 subject sections from linguistics to Holocaust to poetry and Christian fiction.
There was enough here to educate a person extremely well. This was a thinking and learning person’s bookstore, quietly selling books for over forty years, despite the convenience and reduced prices available on Amazon’s website. We walked away with books about Lincoln, Patton, and Reagan, along with two collections of books by Mark Twain and George Eliot. Inside each Twain volume, written in cursive, was the name of a previous owner and the date December 16, 1916.
While we were touring this bookstore in New York, other independent book stores were closing this summer, from Delaware to Wisconsin to Minnesota. The Ninth Street Bookstore in Wilmington, Delaware, faces closure after the couple who have run it for forty years announced their retirement recently. After nearly three decades in business, Carla Allison announced plans to retire and shutter The Reader’s Choice bookstore on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Drive in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, which was “believed to be the only African-American-owned bookstore in Wisconsin.” Silver Spring Books, a long-standing bookstore in Silver Spring, Maryland, also closed in July. In California, a Berkeley science fiction bookstore called Dark Carnival, which has been in business for more than forty years, announced that it, too, would close; and a bookstore in the Twin Cities with a twenty-seven year history closed on July 31st.
Many of these bookstore’s owners are in their sixties or seventies and wanted to retire; yet there is a decided lack of interest among younger generations to enter the business, perhaps because it lives in the long shadow of Amazon, slim profit margins, and increasingly high rents. And yet, each generation hopes to leave something of value for the next one; what younger generations choose to view as their cultural inheritance is revealing of their values.
After Plattsburgh we headed south to Amherst, Massachusetts. A well-known college town, Amherst has a lot of libraries. But it is one particular book sanctuary that stands apart for the inheritance it offers those who visit. In what looks like a series of small, rectangular, interconnected houses set back in an apple orchard on a small liberal arts campus, is the world’s most robust Yiddish book collection. There aren’t a lot of Yiddish-speaking people in this neck of the Massachusetts woods, but the books (and the visitors) come from every part of the world.
“When people give you their books it’s a very candid moment in their lives,” says Aaron Lansky, the founder of the Yiddish Book Center. He was twenty-three years old when he first started gathering the world’s corpus of Yiddish books. As many willing hands offered up their books to him, they also offered up narrative histories about how the books were acquired, how they were kept, how they were studied, how they were paid for (often in lieu of food), and what they meant to the holder.
The Yiddish Book Center, like the Plattsburgh bookstore to the north, is a reminder that around each collection of books a community exists—figuratively and physically. “They are handing you the treasures they have accumulated in their lives and they know their own children and grandchildren don’t want,” Lansky notes in a video at the Center’s welcome center. “When people hand you their books as they say to you…here is my inheritance, this is what I am leaving to the world. What they are leaving to you is a world that is very fast vanishing.”
It is this idea of an “inheritance” that we have lost sight of in our increasingly digital world. Books have long been viewed as a way to preserve and unlock the culture and traditions of the past for each successive generation. The Corner-Stone and The Yiddish Book Center offer up two versions of this form of inheritance. The bookstore offers passersby the opportunity to design their own education by drawing on the most talented minds and challenging ideas of previous generations. It places this inheritance right in the center of town. The Yiddish Book Center, a living history of the modern Jewish people, illuminates how the books of a community can sustain future generations even once they move out into the diaspora. As we think about the future of bookstores, we should remember that this rich heritage of words on paper, whether it’s found on Main Street or off the beaten path in an apple orchard, is one that we take for granted at our peril.