It is now 90 days since lockdown began in Wales, and I am still wishing I had stopped at my local bookstore on my way home the day before it happened.
This exile from the space of the bookstore has developed my appreciation for the experience offered by that counter-space where commerce and culture agree a tenuous pact of co-existence. This balancing act happens within an identifiable physical location, within borders defined by the walls of the room, the limits of the market stall, or the edges of the book table. Within that defined space, that cultural / commercial balance creates a meaningful location, a normalcy specific to that space–a type of commercial and a cultural identity that may not exist beyond its bounds. Such meaningful locations exist in more than just bookstores, of course. Churches, hospitals, ancient monuments, the local garden centre, the town recycling centre–all of these spaces define a normalcy that dissipates as one moves away from them.
This sense of place can be exclusive. If you do not identify with the cultural normalcy which the location creates, then you are unlikely to feel comfortable there. As Saha and van Lente point out in their recent report, Rethinking ‘Diversity’ in Publishing , bookstores “can feel exclusive to non-white, non-middle-class people” because of “what booksellers stock (i.e. highbrow books or books with predominantly white, middle-class protagonists), how the shop is designed, the location and the staff of the bookshops (i.e. white, middle-class)” .
The sense of place can also be inclusive, as Kathy Liddle of the University of Toronto makes clear in her paper, “Distribution Matters: Feminist Bookstores as Cultural Interaction Spaces” . She identifies bookstores as a specific type of meaningful location, one in which distributors and audiences interact with cultural objects (in this case books) .
Liddle analysed responses from surveys conducted by herself and others between 1995-2003. These surveys included interviews with booksellers, staff, and customers in feminist bookstores, as well as archival work and a written survey. The interviews expressed a sense of mission that went beyond remaining commercially viable although remaining inextricably linked to the commercial needs of the bookstores. One bookseller’s description of her store’s success is echoed across many of the interviews:
Our greatest success, besides staying in business, is the pride, self-confidence and empowerment we see in some of our customers over the months and years they visit us. Whether leaving a violent relationship, or coming out as a lesbian or raising a daughter, we can see how information (books) and a supportive atmosphere can change lives. (Lundoff, Survey 1995).
To make sense of her findings, Liddle models what she refers to as cultural interaction spaces, the meaningful locations created by the interactions of booksellers, distributors, and customers. She identifies six elements to this type of space:
Staff and booksellers
Books (the cultural products)
Physical space (its layout, design, visual attributes
Atmosphere (language, behaviours, attitudes, inclusivity or exclusivity)
Customers and audience
It is a useful development of Agnew’s meaningful location model , which includes the geographical location, the physical locale, and the the sense of place . It shifts the emphasis from curation and the store as an expression of an individual’s identity into a space where identities are formed and recognized. One the six elements, atmosphere, seems to be vital to the space but also the least defined. Liddle’s discussion of atmosphere rests largely on how inclusive or exclusive the stores are:
In a feminist bookstore, there was comfort in knowing that both booksellers and other customers were likely to share certain attitudes and ideologies that may have been less prevalent in mainstream venues .
Atmosphere would seem to include the culture in the books and the affordances of the layout, as well as the attitudes and behaviours that are encouraged or allowed. Like “sense of place” it remains ill-defined. Liddle has modelled the elements that combine to create the atmosphere, but these remain elusive intangibles.
I think the model goes a way toward explaining the resilience of independent bookstores over the past 40 years as they have struggled against mall stores, superstores and online stores. The advice booksellers are often given regarding staying solvent has to do with book selection and activities on offer. It is frequently pointed out that successful stores have frequent readings by authors and the like, and this is largely true. Liddle points out that this is only a part of the story. Success often comes from having an atmosphere that is inclusive and a normalcy with which people (not only readers) can identify.
I enjoy a visit to the town dump not for the product that I find there, but for the physical space (where I’m from it is out in the countryside) and the presence of the other recyclers that gather there. It is a meaningful location for me. I prefer a visit to the local bookstore, a meaningful location that is also a cultural interaction space. I know what to expect at the dump. The bookstore’s combination of books, booksellers, and readers creates what Doreen Massey calls the “chance of space” . Maybe that is the normalcy I crave?
Dr Eben J. Muse is a Reader in Bookselling at the School of Arts, Culture(s) and Language at Bangor University. He has been Co-Director of Stephen Colclough Centre for the History and Culture of the Book since 2016. He was raised in a bookstore in Massachusetts which he now owns, and he conducts research into the business and culture of bookstores. He is currently editing the Books & Bookselling strand of the Cambridge Elements Series Publishing and Book Culture and co-director of the Bookselling Research Network.