"I, Stuart Brent, have become an anachronism," he said. "I was fading out, coming up empty, day after day after day. I don't have the loyalty of discerning readers who used to come to me for books by Joyce, Proust, Spengler, for the books on psychoanalysis and literature that my bookstore was noted for." (Chicago Tribune/January, 1996)
I remember Stuart Brent and his eponymous bookstore. Mr. Brent adored books with religious fanaticism. I would stop into his shop now and then. He would be straightening shelves or sitting at a table in the back.
Mr. Brent would ask what kind of books you like to read. He would expound on favorite authors. Sometimes the conversation would last for several minutes.
I remember Kroch's and Brentano's on Wabash Avenue. It was billed as the world's largest bookstore. They had a knowledgeable staff who could help customers find what they wanted or needed. Kroch's, as it was called, was known for their large selection of art books. They employed a specialist who could find hard to get, out of print, or rare books.
Marshall Field's State Street store had a wonderful book section staffed by knowledgeable people. Field's was known for their impeccable service throughout the store.
The original Barbara's on Wells Street, in Old Town, was a wonderful place to shop for books. Barbara's managed to thrive and survive over the years. They have several locations in unique areas.
When Crown Books and Barnes and Noble invaded Chicago, discounting became the norm. Kroch's and Brentano's, who did not discount, faded into history. Other stores closed shop or shrunk in size.
Then came Amazon. The online behemoth that could now claim the old Sears tagline, "Sears sells everything".
Amazon sells everything.
Bookselling goes back to ancient Rome, Greece, and the Islamic world. Booksellers were an important facet of these ancient societies. The home library was a status symbol.
The printing press changed the world of books, eventually leading to mass production. Books became available to the increasing literate masses.
Like Stuart Brent and his eponymous bookstore, bookstores became anachronisms. Online shopping, especially Amazon, drove the chains and discount bookstores to close many, if not all their outlets.
Independent bookstores saw a renaissance a few years ago. They are struggling to stay afloat. Some offer the amenities of a coffee shop, WiFI, and a community space. They hold events and book signings.
Like booksellers of old, the independent owners love books and their staffs are knowledgeable. Many of the independents sell hard to get titles from small or local publishers. They are a boon to local authors.
Amazon, the online giant, recently opened its first brick and mortar bookstore in Chicago. Located at 3443 N. Southport, the store is over 7000 square feet. It is an open, well-lit space. The store is similar in design to other merchants along the Southport corridor. This lends a sense of familiarity when you first walk in.
The staff is friendly, knowledgeable, and helpful.
According to DNAinfo/Chicago, Amazon mined data about Chicago book purchasers to determine what Chicagoans like to read. The Chicago preferences are in easy to navigate aisles in the front of the store.
Aside from books, Amazon carries some consumer products and their own brand named items like Kindles and Echo. Unlike many stores, Amazon has a rather large magazine section. For a while, it appeared print magazines were fading away.
If you are a member of Amazon Prime and use the credit card associated with your account, you pay whatever the online discounted price of your purchase is. For example, my purchase was seven dollars less than the retail price.
There is a coffee shop, serving Stumptown Coffee and local pastry, in the front of the store. It is a pleasant enough space, with plenty of afternoon light coming through the window.
The store's opening was not without controversy. Independent bookstores were rightfully concerned that the retail behemoth was going to be difficult to compete with. Amazon's discounts are hard to beat, especially if you purchase a lot of books over time.
Independent booksellers are a valuable resource and carry many titles not found in regular retail chains. They are more neighborhood centric.
There is another controversy swirling around Amazon over their advertising appearing on the controversial so-called news site, Breitbart. On social media, people are calling for boycotts of Amazon until the ads are removed.
Bookstores, like libraries, are valuable entities. There is, and should be room for everyone in this marketplace. Books are that important.
The test for Amazon will be if they are a good business neighbor. Do they plan more stores? Will they put them near the indies, driving them out? Only time will tell.
It is hoped the indies can compete with Amazon and stay in business. We need more bookstores instead of coffee shops, yoga studios, chain sandwich shops, and the ubiquitous cell phone stores popping up everywhere.
As to the Breitbart controversy, it is a nonstarter. Amazon sells books on all topics. They sell books written by and for extremists across the political spectrum. They sell controversial books. Their customers are from all demographics.
Books, like any art, are supposed to be controversial, disturbing, informative, and even blatantly 'ist' or 'ism'. They are not just entertainment. They should disturb, anger, or cause angst.
No books should be banned, no bookseller should be punished for a fake social wrong, and no advertising should be pulled over people's silly political rage.
The concept of a free press is freedom. Whether it is books, magazines, news, advertising, or any other printed and digital material. There are a few exceptions due to criminal and other laws. Those exceptions, when enforced, are scrutinized closely by the courts.
A free press should remain free. Free from government interference. Free from the interference of the mob.
In a free society, people are allowed to publish, discuss, criticize, debate, argue, and even agitate over ideas, beliefs, or expression. People are free to accept or reject. That is freedom. Anything else is tyranny, whether by government sanction or imposition by the angry wad.
Next to schools, bookstores and libraries are the most important entities in our great city. We should cherish and patronize them.
Bookstores sell gems more precious than diamonds.
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