Recently I heard a bookstore owner bemoaning that the whole “café thing” is a necessity these days. I know what she’s up against—the expansion of internet retail coupled with the shrinking of attention spans—but I wish she could embrace the java. Bookstores have always been about more than books, and they allow our towns to thrive.
I love to sit with my bookstore coffee, bouncing my thoughts off Italian garden photos, new political titles, and guides to Mexican cuisine. Somewhere a bookstore owner is saying. “Aha! The eternal browser! Zut alors, the enemy!” I apologize, but my spirit feels at home in bookstores. To me, they exist as a statement that we, in our public squares, value enlightenment.
Bookstores can also be important spaces for building something I call positive proximity, which means the experience of coexistence with others as a constructive and mobilizing force. Towns with lots of positive proximity have things like buzzing downtowns, creative events on the calendar, and maybe even a few well-marked hiking trails nearby. A bookstore can be the perfect place to gather up and sustain the energies that increase positive proximity. The conversations we have in bookstores get an extra lift from the ineffable, but unmistakable, whirring of creative industry in the air.
I remember sitting at Dudley’s Bookshop Café in Bend, Oregon. Local hippie elders sat in the living room area, planning, discussing; couples were at café tables. The space welcomed them in to share their big ideas and everyday complaints.
Here are elements of bookstores that transport me into a sense of positive proximity:
1. Welcoming employees
The Highly Literate Enthusiast, who can be found at places like the Raven Bookstore in Lawrence, Kans., looks up from a secondhand copy of a lesser-known author, ready to guide you toward any number of personal favorites, but by all means, feel free, take your time.
Then there’s the Visitor from Another Time or Dimension, who probably works at Daedalus Books in Charlottesville, Vir., and may not acknowledge you as he explains to a friend how political demagoguery can warp the fabric of the quantum field. But he’ll let you roam around for hours, because, really, we’re all here from another place, just trying to find our way. And the Old School Reader at, say, City Lights in San Francisco knows that if we all just slowed down and read more books, we might become the civilization we aspire to be. He can hear the bulldozers rumbling through the Mission District, heading for this very address in the North Beach, but for now, the lights are on, the rent is paid, and you, compatriot, are here.
2. Places to hide
Whether it’s over in the tall stacks or off in the small nooks and crannies, these havens for your town’s curious minds are just as important to positive proximity as their social counterparts.
Time becomes unbound in these spaces. I spent a rainy afternoon at the Montague Book Mill in Massachusetts with a secondhand copy of Robert Coles’s The Spiritual Life of Children, sitting on the wide-planked floor of a room that smelled like old books. Heaven.
3. Books and more books
The sheer juxtaposition of them adds value. Not everyone can be the famous Strand Book Store in New York City, but all of those books, all those different ways of thinking, floor to ceiling, side by side, can echo the feel of how we all live together, dynamically and harmoniously, right wing and left wing, vegan muffins and Texas barbecue.
4. A café
Yes, a café, ideally one with a big, decadent, convivial bakery. Most bookstores serve coffee begrudgingly and sparingly, their scones as dry as vellum. Atticus Books in New Haven, Conn., always bucked this trend with its great coffee and cheesecake. Pretty smart, Yalies!
So yeah, the café thing. I’m sorry about that. Perhaps you can put Gabriel Garciá Márquez novels by the Colombian coffee of the week. But please, booksellers, do what you gotta do to hold a space for us, and our souls, and our dreams of building beautiful things, alone and together, in our towns and cities. Your address is the corner of Main and Elm, but you let us experience ourselves in the global village at the intersection of fascination and possibility.
Singer and songwriter Dar Williams’s book What I Found in a Thousand Towns: A Traveling Musician’s Guide to Rebuilding America’s Communities—One Coffee Shop, Dog Run, & Open-Mike Night at a Time is on sale September 5 from Hachette/Basic Books.