Saturday, March 13, 2010

Village Books: A Safe, Clean and Well-Lit Place


It has taken me a little while to come around to Village Books. An archetypal bookstore, for me, is something along the lines of Henderson's: shelves packed, floor to ceiling, with spined-in books, orderly piles on the floor. With certain primary subjects, say biographies of Lincoln, well represented and, surrounding, packed constellations of secondary, tertiary, quaternary related texts. Depth and breadth. It looks like this:

Henderson's Books

Village Books looks nothing like Henderson's. It is a safe, clean and well-lit place. There are plenty of places to sit. (Last time I was there, a sign in the windows encouraged people to come in sit, read and even sleep for a while.) It is staffed with knowledgeable, friendly and helpful people. They will happily look up anything you ask for on the computer. If they do not have it, they will order it for you. There is a cafe upstairs, access to a restaurant downstairs, just beyond: a congenial area reserved for author signings and readings. Down there also is the "revolutionary" Espresso Print-On-Demand Book Machine.

Every section in the store has a representative selection of texts. But it is clear that what is there, is there to be sold. There is not much "dead weight" on their shelves. I should add that it is nice to see that they also sell a lot of used or marked down books mixed in with the new at reduced prices.

Many local authors are well represented. Local artists are displayed on the walls. They have book signings several times during the week. They are at the forefront of new technology. E-Book cards are scattered appropriately around the store, next to copies of the physical book. (One imagines that soon the books might disappear altogether.)

The Village Books website is state of the art. They are plugged into Facebook, Twitter, Vimeo and YouTube. There is a Village Books Blog, a Village Books Radio Show, and several active Village Books Reading Groups.

The admirable motto of Village Books is: "Building Community One Book at a Time." And they back that up with fundraisers and sponsoring charitable events. Village Books is not a "chain" or "corporate" bookstore. They are proudly independent, belonging to IndieBound, a national organization of independent booksellers started by the American Booksellers Association.

Village Books is not just a bookstore, it is an integrated aspect of the community around it, Fairhaven, and the larger city of Bellingham. Village Books is, without any doubt, one of the most upstanding and responsible bookstores in Washington.


With all of that in mind, I should add that Village Books is not one of my favorite bookstores in the area. It seems too safe of a place to me, reflecting in many aspects these same admirable qualities of the surrounding community of Fairhaven.

On a recent afternoon in Seattle, I went to two bookstores, Left Bank Books and Elliott Bay Books. Each from different ends of the Aesthetics of Bookstores Spectrum, they vividly indicate what Village Books is missing: Edge. Like the edges of an original object that won't fit into any round or square hole. Again, these are my sensibilities, but I want a bookstore to challenge me, to get in my face sometimes, to provoke and irritate me, to surprise me, most of all... astonish me.

Obviously, the anarchist collective bookstore, Left Bank Books, has a lot of edge. You do not walk in there for the latest New York Times bestseller or a book to read on the beach. Left Bank Books is the sort of bookstore that is going to confront you with radical ideas and practices that will, hopefully, disturb you enough to make you want to learn more about them. Small Press publishers, zines, pamphlets, broadsides, graffiti, notes on the wall, all offer radical perspectives that challenge everything from the existence of the U.S. government to the reasons you should not eat meat or you should not eat vegetables or maybe you should not even eat at all. It is certainly not for everyone. But it is a vital part of the social fabric of a progressive city that prides itself on the intelligence and tolerance of its citizens. It is one of the most well known and respected radical bookstores in the country.

"If you must steal books, steal from a richly stocked Corporate Bookstore."
A note in the Anarchist Section.

When I walked into Elliott Bay Books, there was also an edge but not in the same sense as Left Bank. At Elliott Bay, looking at the books on display, the staff recommendations, the selection and layout, and that always ineffable "whole greater than the parts" quality of a great bookstore, I felt challenged to explore beyond the authors that I was familiar with, to read something new - in the sense that Ezra Pound once implored writers to "make it new." I was aware that Elliott Bay, being in the service of a large city, was required to have the usual suspects, New York Times Bestsellers, National Book Award and other prize winners, to have displays that reflected what the publishers were trying to "push." However, although these elements were there, they were not out in front, not obvious.

What was obvious was the character of the store, of the owners, of the buyers and employees that worked there. What was obvious was a passion for good, not just good, but for great books. The edge here was about honoring the essentials of world book culture, the canon, AND about promoting those books and authors that are redefining what the canon might be in the future.

I always know when I am in a great bookstore because I feel like the Burgess Meredith character in that Twilight Episode, Time Enough at Last. That feeling that there is just isn't enough time to read all of these great books. Books that I hadn't even known about until I walked into Elliott Bay. It was beautiful: it astonished me.

The writing of books, especially those books that change the world, requires its authors to get down into the boiler room of the human soul. Even on the most mundane level, the creation of a book is a difficult act. If you have doubts about this, give it a go. Authors are often outsiders, standing apart, self-consciously observing the life that everybody is happily living. They spend much of their life alone, not in this world, but in the one that they are creating on the page. If "successful," they provide a mirror in which we can better see ourselves.

It is a profession that has notoriously taken its toll on its practitioners. Many of the greatest writers have been alcoholics, drug addicts, sociopaths, psychopaths, sexual deviants, gamblers, thieves, all of the above, other and most just certifiably insane. These are the people that have changed and will change our lives.

As I walked away from Left Bank and Elliott Bay, I wondered what Doestoevsky, Neitzsche, Melville, Poe, Salinger or Cormac McCarthy would think about these bookstores.

When I walk into a bookstore and feel that I am in a safe, sanitized and commodified space; where the books are treated like widget-tchotchkes, their presence on the shelves predicated by how quickly they will "turn," i.e. sell; where I notice that all the end-caps are pushing one publishing house; where the displays can be predicted by the New York Times Book Review; when I sense all of these aspects of the market, I feel like I am being treated as a tool. It doesn't matter that clerks remember my name and are courteous, kind and well-intentioned. What does matter is that I feel surrounded by the generic sameness that is endemic to every corporate bookstore in the country. I don't want to go to an independent bookstore to be insulted every way I turn by the insinuation that I do now know how to buy a book off the front page of

In the end, I imagine that everything dirty or dangerous or challenging, if it can be sold, if money can be made from it, will be sanitized, bowdlerized and neutered into comfortable commodity, made safe and palatable for the greatest number of the buying public. This is the way of the world.

But also here at the end, I wonder about what makes the Spirit of a Place, of a Town. I wonder: if Daniel Jefferson "Dirty Dan" Harris, harpooner, smuggler, bootlegger, raucous drinker, teller of tall tales, infrequent bather and the founder of Fairhaven were alive today, where might he feel welcome to have a drink, grab a bite to eat or tell his stories? From the little I know, I imagine he might be amused at how his image has been co-opted to promote the town. But perhaps also a bit dismayed at how safe, clean and well-lit the place has become.

Google: hours, directions, reviews
Village Books
Left Bank Books
Elliott Bay Books

1 comment:

  1. I usually go with my family to a some village specially because we like to know the people and the places. I believe the people are more helpful and kind than people of the city.
    I love to go with my couple, he usually buy viagra and we enjoy too much our privacy.