Editor Ronald Rice on his new essay collection and why bookstores will live forever
From Ernest Hemingway frequenting the Shakespeare and Company bookstore in Paris to Allen Ginsberg and the beat poet's relationship to City Lights in San Francisco, authors have long had intimate collaborations with the stores that sell their books. My Bookstore: Writers Celebrate Their Favorite Places to Browse, Read and Shop explores this important connection with eighty pieces by writers on their favorite literary hangouts. Colorado mystery author Stephen White will be on hand tonight at 7 p.m. to read his essay from the collection at the place he wrote it about: The Tattered Cover.
In advance of that, we caught up with the editor of the book, longtime bookseller and bookstore aficionado Ronald Rice, about his love of independent booksellers and why they will never disappear.
Westword: What's the idea behind this collection?
Ronald Rice: Each bookstore has a home author, many of them have several, but there's always one that they can be proud of. And by a home author I mean a couple of things: one that may not live in the area but has had such success and backing from that one store that they consider it a home, but more that an author is local and that bookstore has supported this local author until the author is no more a local, that they have become national authors. There's some feeling of debt that these local authors feel to these stores. Being a book buyer myself, we always have the choice when presented with a book to buy two copies and put it in the section or buy five copies and put it right on the front shelf and to actively hand sell it. That's a monetary commitment, and it's a commitment for the staff to go out and say hey, this is a really good book. And I think that sort of synergy between the author and their home store is what creates that kind of bond that goes back and forth and we have found that the authors are more than thrilled to be able to write about the place that in a lot of cases gave them their start.
Colorado author Stephen Wright wrote an essay for the book about The Tattered Cover--can you speak a little about that piece?
Well, I found that Stephen's essay really covered a lot of ground, and a couple of things that he touched on were really important to me. I've been in the book business running stores and buying for stores for a long time, and as we move forward into this digital age where so much of the conversation has gone toward non-brick and mortar stores, I found that one of the key words in Stephen's essay with regards to the beginnings of his relationship with the Tattered Cover is "curatorial." The thing about every brick and mortar store, and certainly Tattered Cover is a leader in this, is that rather than just throwing books at the wall to see what will stick, the booksellers themselves have a curatorial responsibility certainly in their own minds to point customers toward books that they believe are right for them. It's not just a big blob of books. You can take a huge store like Tattered Cover and be very curatorial and make choices about what books you'd like to have that fit your philosophy. And I like the fact that Stephen mentioned curation in his article.
I was also really fascinated by the fact that his association with the Tattered Cover led to a life of writing, which sometimes happens and sometimes doesn't. But you have to love to read if you want to write, and somewhere along the line that germ, whether it's Stephen at the Tattered Cover or any other author who grows up near a small neighborhood bookstore, you go to a place where you find the love of reading. And then all of a sudden, what I found interesting is that Joyce's [Meskis, Tattered Cover owner] store became such a catalyst for his writing. That doesn't really always occur. But it's great when a bookstore can be a catalyst for a life of writing, and this store seems to have pushed him willingly into a life of writing. And what a win-win situation that is.
What do you love about bookstores?
Well, I'm 48 years old and I've been a bookseller since I was 15. That's such a big question. What I love about bookstores is they really feel like home to me. When I go into a bookstore it has an effect on me that there is still so much to know. I grew up with the saying "An unexamined life is not worth living," and certainly a bookstore gives us an opportunity to live an examined life. Grace Slick said you've gotta feed your head, and what a pleasure it is to feed your head. Every time you go into a bookstore and you see all these new books, the act of feeding your head is the act of feeling alive. And when you see all these books, just books and books and books and books, I personally get this sort of a nervous feeling, in a good way. I get this nervous feeling because I think to myself, there's no way at 48 that I'm going to know all this, but what a great opportunity to start.
Just looking in my own house, there's stacks and stacks of books and my wife, she says "You're never going to read all of these." And you know what? She's right. But they're my children and my babies, they are like the inhabitants of the house that remind me that I still have so much to learn. Even when I die, there will still be more to learn. It gives you a feeling of being alive, that they're never gonna run out of stuff to say, authors. There's always gonna be fiction and nonfiction out there and they're never gonna run out. When you walk into a bookstore, you're faced with life in such a grand scheme, between fiction and nonfiction and travel and every-thing under the sun. I'm so overwhelmed by how much there is yet to know, and that feeling makes you alive.. It's sort of this joyful angst. Well, there it is. I know I'm never gonna get it all, but I can start.
Do you think that the bookstore will live forever?
I think that it may not have the same incarnation, but in some way, I think the bookstore will live forever only because I can't think of a world without it. I don't see them disappearing, if only because there are so many like-minded people who enter a store to be with other like-minded people. Reading and learning and filling your head is a really social thing. It makes you feel alive to walk into a store, and whether you're downloading something on your Nook or Kindle or whatever it is, I still see people talking about the content. I think a bookstore is always gonna hold a place even if bound pages and bound books are disappearing or slowing down, there's always going to be a place where like-minded people gather to experience not only the books, but each other.
To go in and to go to your philosophy section and stand next to a person who is paging through Schopenhauer and say, "I really dug him." There's really no way to do that [without the bookstore]. To physically be near another person where you can have this discourse and stand next to each other is a very comforting thing. You're thinking, oh my gosh, here's another person who's interested in the same thing. It's life affirming.
There's gotta be a place where people can go to live, and there's really not many places to go like that. I go into the store and I buy a pair of pants and it's gonna be a pretty big stretch before I look at the guy next to me and go wow, 34 waist, man, do they ride high? And all of a sudden we go into a discussion about Lee versus Levi or whatever and go, let's have coffee and talk about jeans. I just kind of don't see that happening. No insult to people who might be doing that right now [laughs]. I'd rather that living essence be captured in the brick and mortar store. You go in there because it affirms your existence as a human who wants to learn and be among its own kind.
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