exactly what is civilization?

January 21, 2006




I don't know if it's a sign of the end of civilization or a last gasp of defense against the coming dark ages: Starbucks is going into the bookselling business. And not only that, possibly the publishing business.

I can't quite figure out why this is disturbing to me. After all, anything that gets books into people's hands nowadays is a good thing. If Starbucks is weighing in on the side of reading and further weighing in on the side of the book as the killer app for reading, I should be applauding, not fretting in vague disquiet. My original antipathy toward Starbucks was engendered by their buying the Coffee Connection and their insistence on "one roast fits all" for the coffee. Then there's the "drive out the small local coffee shops" strategy. They seem less successful at that than they once did. Now they even brag that they create the audience for good coffee thus benefitting the small independent local coffee shops. But why books?

Can you have a "one roast fits all" philosophy of bookselling? What kind of books do middle schoolers who drink $$$ frozen coffee drinks read? When I was their age (who thought I'd ever start a sentence like that), I bought coffee for 25 cents at the local bakery and got my books from the library. Possibly not all Starbucks are filled with middle schoolers. That may be a local phenomenon. After all, I can't believe middle schoolers are buying all those jazz CDs they sell either.

How will Starbucks publishing and selling books affect independent bookstores? Clueless about any answers to that, I took off to meet Nancy at the bus station for an expedition to Waltham -- not the Waltham of my childhood nor even young adulthood (I worked in the financial aid office at Brandeis) but the Waltham of destination dining and two, count them two, bookstores on Moody Street.

Alas, the service at New Mother India has become non-existent. With the exception of our Christmas Eve visit when we were the only people in the place for enough time that they waited on us promptly the last few visits have been strange. Very strange. I thought we would faint from hunger before they took our orders. The delay between placing the order and receiving the food was even longer. It kind of took the shine off New Mother India as destination dining.

No problem with the destination bookstores though. I donated 11 books to the TeenLEEP guys at More than Words and between them and the boy entrepreneurs at Back Pages I only bought 4. At More than Words I picked up a 1959 field guide to trees of India. The illustrations are so good and the whole tone of the book so offbeat that I couldn't leave it in the store. I browsed it a long time -- they have a nice atmosphere for browsing -- and basically couldn't go home without it.

At Back Pages, I made sure to thank Alex for recommending In Patagonia for Lizzy who wants to travel after high school. Chatwin proved to be just the thing. I came out of there with 1421: The Year China Discovered America, which interested me mainly because it was heavily discounted and I'd just finished When China Ruled the Seas : The Treasure Fleet of the Dragon Throne, 1405-1433 by Louise Levathes, Playback: From the Victrola to Mp3, 100 Years of Music, Machines, and Money by Mark Coleman (a surprisingly engaging history of recorded music), and Classic New England Stories : True Tales and Tall Tales of Character and Culture by Jake Elwell (Editor). Of course I haven't finished Theatre of Fish or Down the Bay yet so these latest acquisitions go into the "to be read" pushdown stack. Well maybe not really a pushdown stack any more since I seem to prioritize the actual reading of the books by whether or not boats are involved.

I guess that vague disquiet about Starbucks taking over, oops I meant taking up, the bookselling business got me charged up to singlehandedly save civilization as we know it at independent bookstores. Gotta go study my field guide to trees of India.


Today's Reading
Theatre of Fish
by John Gimlette, Down the Bay by Wallace P. Stanley

This Year's Reading
2006 Booklist




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Copyright © 2006, Janet I. Egan