While visiting Robbie in Toronto this weekend, I visited close to ten book and music stores. They varied in size and scope -- some were clones of Barnes & Nobles while others were little mom and pop outfits -- and I took notice of the amount of time I spent in each. I was spending significantly more time in the smaller shops than the large ones. While in a new city, I didn't need to have every book on the planet, just a select group of really good ones.
After some more thought, I wondered why I need these brick and mortar superstores at all. If I am looking for a specific book or album, I can go online and likely get it for cheaper and without stepping out into the frigid New York winter. I want an experience when I decide to spend time in a bookstore. In other words, I want more than a warehouse filled with endless rows of The Davinci Code; I want a store that will give me a unique perspective.
The first store that struck me was Penguin Music. It was a small, out-of-the-way shop in a hip shopping district. There were probably only a couple thousand albums out and only one person, the owner, manning the store. While there, I listened to a few different albums that I found interesting and the owner actually had a conversation with me, which is rare even at small stores these days. Another great record shop was Soundscapes, which offered 15-20 CDs in listening stations that were seemingly handpicked, instead of being filled with payola selections like Tower Records. As a result of these, I bought three CDs.*
The best example of quality over quantity was Nicholas Hoare, a Canadian bookseller. I fell in love when I walked in, as every book was showing its cover as opposed to its spine. The store was a good size, but by displaying books in this way they probably lost anywhere from 1/2 to 1/3 of the space they'd have otherwise, resulting in an incredibly pleasing browsing experience. Instead of seeing a rainbow-colored row of spines, I could clearly see book titles and jacket art. Also, the staff was approachable and there was plenty of room to sit down and read a book for a little while. If the books hadn't been signifcantly cheaper in the US, I would have walked home with half a dozen instead of just one. (I'd also definitely recommend Pages Bookstore.)
Stores like the ones I've mentioned make me yearn for a resurgence of smaller stores with better, not larger, selections. I can't see it happening in Little Farm Town, Iowa, but I wouldn't be surprised if big cities start rejecting warehouse stores once online shopping become completely ubiquitous. Okay, I would be a little surprised, but I would just love a little more diversity and some folks who can help me wade through the nonstop assault of information that comes my way these days. Please, help me filter.
*Final Fantasy, LCD Soundsystem, Black Mountain