Tuesday, July 29, 2008

"O Oysters, come and walk with us!"

It's more than a little bit sad that bookstores are going the way of the dodo. Not only are times hard for the independent booksellers, but even the big guys like Borders and Barnes & Noble are struggling. (Look for those two to merge and share the pain.) In little old Napa not that long ago there were at least three bookstores downtown. Now the total is zero. Their sales fell as rents rose. On our recent east coast trip I was on the lookout for one of those funky old book shops with stacks and stacks to poke through. Sorry to say after two weeks on the road I never saw a single one.

You don't have to be a rocket surgeon to conclude that the ability to buy books online is making the brick and mortar bookstore weak. If I want some old book, chances are I can find it for pennies from some Amazon re-seller - and if it's a new book I'm after, what keeps me from buying it at Wal Mart or some other discounter where you get the same book for several dollars less? (Other than the fact that I don't want to go to Wal Mart, of course.) I am surely to blame for the dwindling of the bookstores. I buy 90% of my books online. So be it.

But now and then it's a gift to wander around in the surviving stacks and see what tickles your fancy. When we finally found a bookstore on our east coast trip it was a big chain on 5th Avenue, we fell into Mark Kurlansky and this has been a good thing.

Kurlansky is one of those writers who makes something mundane something interesting. His book Salt: A World History got onto my radar when it came out in 2002. I thought it sounded worthwhile but never read it. In the bookstore a couple of weeks ago we turned up his more recent effort, The Big Oyster: History on the Half Shell, which is both a telling of the bivalve's story and the history of New York City. I love to read a book about a place I'm visiting while I'm there, so this was a major winner for me - and we were already on a seafood diet, having gobbled mussels in Philly and oysters on the half shell at the famous Union Oyster House in Boston (the oldest restaurant in the whole country), and then the best fried oysters I've ever tasted at a little joint on Plymouth Bay. I had days where I read about oysters, thought about oysters, and ate oysters. It was oyster-iffic.

So I'm continuing on a Kurlansky run right now. After the oyster book I read Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World (and if you follow that link you'll see you can buy it used for $2.20 - goodbye sweet bookstores!) And on deck is The Basque History of the World. So I started with the oyster and now I'm on a roll.

Mmmmmm...oyster roll....

1 comment:

Graeme said...

haight street has two or three nice quaint bookstores. but because they are on haight street, the shopkeeps have flooded the front windows with handwritten signs exclaiming harsh codes of conduct on entering and exploring the shop. i am always deterred.