When Susie Cannon and the late Lynn Dickey owned a bookstore in Sheridan, I would stop by and Lynn would often have suggestions for books I should read; same with Anna Moscicki at Two Oceans Books in Dubois; and Marty Brace, whose Book Basket in Lander showed an extraordinary range of readers in its recycled collection. They were avid readers themselves, and fed my addiction smartly.
Then there is Mad Dog and the Pilgrim Booksellers, at Sweetwater Station, in the literary hotbed along the desolate Oregon Trail west of Jeffrey City. Polly Hinds and Lynda German have there a rambling barn full of rare and used books. I once tried to stump them by asking for a book by an obscure Irish author, Flann O’Brien, and, to my surprise, they pulled out a paperback of At Swim-Two-Birds. To save face, I said, no, I meant the hardback edition. A year later, I brought some book-loving friends by to marvel at the place, and Polly Hinds pulled At Swim-Two-Birds, from under the counter – hardcover.
Mad Dog and the Pilgrim carry on, so does Two Ocean Books under a different owner, and so does the fine (but grouchy) Wind City Books in Casper; still, many small-town bookstores have closed. They were never exactly profit centers, but their owners only needed a small flow of customers to indulge their love of rooms full of vellum. Just a few years ago, Lander, where I live, had three bookstores. Now it has one, and there isn’t much in it – not Wyoming author Alexandra Fuller’s new book, for instance, which is on the New York Times bestseller list, or the excellent Moon travel guides, which put me to shame back in the day when I wrote travel guides.
Marty Brace closed her Lander store a few years ago, not because business was bad (she never paid herself anyway) but because she was tired of managing it. But she noted then, and more so now, that bookstores everywhere were shrinking; inventories were smaller, coffee service was larger, and for all we know the latte-sipping, laptop-fixed patron was typing in an Amazon order.
Of course, some great bookstores survive, like vinyl record vendors: The King’s English and Sam Wellers, in Salt Lake City, the Tattered Cover in Denver (with one less floor of books, please note)…but those are in faraway cities. If you have a bookstore in your town, you’ll find less of the gem-hunting pleasure of browsing; that requires a lot of shelf space, and the patience to let a book sit for a year or two until that enchanted evening when someone spies it from across the crowded room.
This is not a problem particular to small Wyoming towns. This is a problem all over the country, and the world, in this digital electronic age. Book stores are disappearing. Readers are diminishing. (Sorry, Twitter readers, but you don’t count – you quit at 140 characters, four paragraphs ago.) (Oh, and, you too, WyoFile readers, you’re looking at a screen, and that doesn’t count either….)
In February, I had about two hours of daylight when I arrived in Washington, D.C., and two urgent missions: shoes (the hiking boots I’d worn on the plane didn’t go with the coat and tie) and a new book. Washington had suffered a paralyzing inch or two of snow, and Congress was especially frozen, unable to pass homeland security legislation. (Wouldn’t you think: homeland security, the perfect issue for Republicans, finally in charge, to show Americans they were looking after us? Only to be stymied by…well, Republicans. But I digress…).
What to do, then? The perfect antidote for the grey gloom was, I surmised, a book. Not words on a screen — I’d had enough on the airplane — and not the kind administered aurally by ear buds plugged into “Audible.” I wanted a forest of words in my hand, black ink smacked into fibrous pages, words that wouldn’t disappear when the electricity goes off, so I could cheat ahead a few pages, write some notes in the margin, hear the thud of a book hitting the floor mid-sentence around midnight.
Since I was at Union Station for the shoes (train stations, like bookstores, aren’t what they used to be — more like shopping malls, in this age, with a mix of upscale Italian leather and downscale Dunkin’ Donuts), I knew I could find the book I was looking for at the big Barnes & Noble there. I don’t like chains, but.…
But…no. Where B&N once had been, there was a store full of hats and perfume and very thin ties.
So I hiked briskly (New shoes! Thin tie!) between the Capitol and the Supreme Court, to Pennsylvania Ave. SE, where many years ago I had often stopped after work to share lies with other reporters at the Tune Inn. Nearby had been a compact and popular bookstore called Trover’s. It was always well-stocked with tomes about Washington, so I would pick up author Jim Mann’s new book on George W. Bush, and excavate more Dick Cheney material (still working on that…).
But…no. Where Trover’s had once sold tree pulp, someone was now selling burritos.
I asked a fellow on the street where I could get a book, and he thought awhile, then answered, “Well, there’s the Library of Congress.”
The problem, everyone knows, is the digital takeover. Between 2010 and 2012, “eCommerce” took over more than 40 percent of the book market, propelled by tablets and other devices, by the octopi reach of Amazon, and by the closing of big book chains like Borders. That growth slowed in 2013, according to Bowker, a company that tracks book stuff. But so did the production of books in print, dropping from 309,957 titles in 2012, to 304,912 in 2013, and by a much bigger amount in self-publishing and public-domain titles.
And the trend is worsening. According to Jane Friedman, whose business is writing a blog on the writing business, fiction print book sales have dropped 37 percent since 2009. Nonfiction print books are down 23 percent over the same period, particularly travel writing (not going back to that!).
Now, 300,000 new print books a year should be enough for me. And it should be noted that the rapid growth of e-books, when added to the slowing drop in new print books, means the totality of books reaching readers appears actually to be rising fairly steeply.
But for those of us who want to browse, and who want the occasional advice of a smart bookseller who knows us, these are hard times. Amazon may score a hit now and then when it elbows me through the computer screen with “recommended for you” based on its algorithmic parsing of my past purchases, but it doesn’t know whether I care more about the Kent Haruf novel or Chemex coffee filters. I would rather have Marty Brace asking me if I’ve read Our Souls at Night.
But…no. The sad truth is, Marty’s store is closed, and Haruf’s last novel about Holt, Colorado (he passed away in November) isn’t available in Lander.