The Independent Bookstore: A Reader’s Oasis

April 30 is Independent Bookstore Day, and according to the U.S. Census Bureau, bookstore sales increased 2.5 percent from 2014 to 2015. The American Booksellers Association, which represents independent sellers, reported 1,712 member stores in 2015, up from 1,401 in 2009.  These figures should put to rest the notion that books made of paper are soon to be replaced by electronic forms.  I realize there are plenty of readers who still hold great affection for traditional books — the paper kind.  There are scholars who have argued that reading physical books is a completely different experience than reading eBooks.  Most bookstore owners would probably agree.  Both formats seem to be doing fine, which should be good news to all readers.

Once a medium of information is introduced, it tends to survive no matter what other “new and improved” medium follows.  Some platforms may become obsolete (stone tablets, 8-track tapes, Beta videotape, etc.), but in general, new forms of information delivery don’t dispatch previous ones.  The written word has never stopped people from telling stories or stage acting. Motion pictures certainly didn’t do away with reading.  Radio didn’t destroy movies, television didn’t stop radio broadcasts, and the availability of videos hasn’t destroyed the television industry.  One could argue that computers have only facilitated many of these delivery methods rather than replacing them.  More importantly, none of these has killed the book, regardless of how we decide to read.

There is no question that the last few decades have been tough for small, independent bookstores.  Many of the ones that survived the advent of the mega-bookstores were finally wiped out by the online providers.  Electronic books no doubt delivered another crushing blow to bookstores, but the truly creative entrepreneurs figured out a way to stay relevant and competitive as a niche market.  One approach is to create a salon-type atmosphere that welcomes the reading shopper and provides a sanctuary, a respite from the fast-paced grid that characterizes so much of our society.  Nicole Sullivan, owner of Denver’s BookBar, was quoted in a recent article in The Denver Post.  “As it gets harder for brick-and-mortar businesses, hybrid businesses become more important,” Sullivan said. “It’s either get it fast and cheap online, or come into a store and have an experience. That’s what indies have to offer, a more personalized experience and that sense of community we’ve lost a lot of over the years.”

I have fully accepted the convenience of eBooks and have been an Amazon Kindle customer since the first year they came on the market.  I’m sure some of my library colleagues were horrified by the introduction of virtual books, but now eBooks are a big part of library holdings.  For fiction and other books that rely very little on illustrations or graphics, I actually prefer eBooks.  However, I treasure the large, hardbound gardening, history, and travel books that fill our shelves at home.  Not even iPads or desktops are acceptable for those titles for me.  I also prefer to browse through slick-paper magazines by physically turning pages, not touching a screen.  Because we live in a rural area, the chances of an independent bookstore surviving for very long are slim, so we order many of our books online.  We also go to the web to shop for household goods, clothes, and equipment.  But, when we travel to places like San Francisco, Chicago, and New York, I almost always make a point to visit an independent bookstore.  To me they all seem to have their own “personality” that makes them unique.  If a book is the door that leads to imagination, then a bookstore is a hallway with almost endless possibilities.

Book Lady Bookstore, Savannah, GA
Book Lady Bookstore, Savannah, GA

A Dining Experience at Casanova

Casanova Restaurant
Casanova Restaurant

I have seen and heard restaurant owners for years use the phrase “dining experience” to describe what it is like to have a meal at their establishment.  For a long time I considered the phrase to be poor marketing at best and false advertising at worst.  If I wanted an experience I would go see a good movie or play, not eat a plate of ravioli with a side Caesar salad.  However, my attitude changed several years ago when my wife and I took a trip to San Francisco, which also included a drive down the coast on Highway 1 to spend a night at Carmel-by-the-Sea.  We were only there for a short time, and we wanted to have a good meal before heading out the next day.  We began searching for restaurants online and decided on a place called Casanova in the little village of Carmel.  Nestled among the shops and galleries there, Casanova is a quaint, unassuming place with a simple façade that would be easy to walk past unnoticed.  And that would be a mistake.

Casanova is a family owned and operated restaurant that serves rustic and classic cuisine, obviously with an Italian flavor.  Ingredients come from local, small organic farms and fisheries.  The world-class wine cellar is managed by a certified wine educator.  The chef’s menu selections range from veal dishes to lamb, beef, and seafood.  They have inside and outside seating.  We were seated outside in a small courtyard area with plastic sheeting and heaters.  It wasn’t closed off enough to keep small birds from flitting in and out looking for crumbs on the ground left by diners, which we decided was charming instead of a deterrent or distraction.

Our meal was exquisite, from appetizers all the way through the courses to dessert.  We were there for almost two hours but never once felt like the evening was dragging.  We were not in a secluded, dimly-lit corner of a dining room, but the setting was still completely romantic.  We could easily forget that there were other diners around us, which was made possible by the most professional waiter I have ever had the pleasure of meeting.  I don’t recall his name. I do remember that he was a middle-aged man who was extremely well-spoken, impressively knowledgeable about the restaurant’s offerings and specialties, and very skilled at his profession.  He was attentive without hovering, interesting but not intrusive.  The food and our waiter turned that dinner into a true dining experience that I will not forget.  I never had a meal in Rome, Italy, that was better than what we had at Casanova.

The restaurant’s website now announces that they have acquired the table at which Vincent Van Gogh enjoyed his meals at the Auberge Ravoux.  The arrival of the table marks the beginning of a cultural exchange between these two artistic communities: Carmel-by-the-Sea and Auvers-sur-Oise, France, where Van Gogh spent the last days of his life.  Dining at Casanova involves much more than just enjoying a delicious meal.  It is about being transported from the malaise to the magnificent!  As they say in the book reviews: “highly recommended.”

Restoring My Soul

Sometime in February while I was scrolling through Facebook, someone posted a short video of himself playing his guitar.  In the message that accompanied the video, he mentioned that he was on a solo retreat in a cabin.  It had never occurred to me until then that a weekend of solitude and reflection could be so attractive.  A wise scholar and friend recently observed that, like she and her husband, my wife and I are “well married.”  It’s a phrase that we had not used before but now fully embrace.  We are indeed well married.  We have been together nine years and married for eight of them.  We enjoy each other’s company.  We like working at the same place, coming home for lunch together and having dinner together, either at home or at a restaurant.  We love to travel; we love to hike; we love working on projects; we enjoy our time at home, especially our evenings and weekends.  My wife has some friends and colleagues that she will occasionally meet for lunch or dinner, and sometimes she makes it an overnight trip.  It is good and healthy for her to stay connected to these people because they have been so important in her life and her profession.  Sadly, there are more such connections in other parts of the country where she has previously lived, and it is difficult to see them regularly, but she makes an effort to do so when possible.

I have a good friend who lives not too far away from us – someone that I have been close to for over twenty years now.  We see each other about once a year or so, and I enjoy catching up with him.  We also stay in touch by phone, texts, and Facebook.  I don’t have as many good friends as my wife does, that is, people I have maintained a close relationship with through the years.  As gregarious as I probably appear to colleagues and acquaintances, the truth is I am a bit shy around people I don’t know, unless I am speaking to groups professionally or performing music.  I was in a band for ten years, so I’m sure there are folks who would scoff at the idea of my being bashful in any shape or form.  There are times, and only for brief periods, when I truly cherish being alone.

When I saw that Facebook video post, I began to think about what it would be like to have a solo weekend, something I have not done in decades.  I started thinking about what I would do for 36-48 hours away from my bride, my sons, my job, our home – away from anyone I know.  I could read, write, study, play music, think . . . and think some more.  I was a bit nervous about pitching this idea to my wife, because the last thing I wanted her to think was that I don’t adore her company.  This woman who clearly loves me unconditionally thought the idea was marvelous and whole-heartedly supported my decision to find a cabin in the mountains for an early spring mini-sabbatical.  Now, as I write this blog entry, it is Saturday afternoon.  I am looking out the window of my retreat cabin in the high country of North Carolina less than a mile from the Blue Ridge Parkway.

I arrived yesterday afternoon, checked in with the inn keeper in town, drove a few miles to my cabin, settled in quickly, poured a glass of Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Honey and headed to the front lawn to relax in a comfortable chair and take in the view.  I followed the inn keeper’s recommendation for dinner at a local bistro, which was an excellent choice. I bought just enough provisions at the grocery store to keep me satisfied for 24 hours, and then I came back to the cabin and sipped more whiskey.  A storm came through last night and dusted the surrounding hillsides with snow, just enough to make it pretty but not so much to make it a nuisance.  I got up a little before 8:00, put on the coffee, and started reading Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, a novel I read many years ago and have mostly forgotten.  I have been reading news and op-ed pieces from the New York Times.  I have had a fire in the fireplace for the last couple of hours, and I have played songs on my guitar that I haven’t attempted in years.  I don’t intend to leave the cabin until heading out for dinner this evening.  I am enjoying a full earth’s rotation of intense relaxation.

Relaxing by the fire
Relaxing by the fire

Just now, as I sat down to reflect on this opportunity and record it, I was reminded with great humility and appreciation of just how fortunate I am.  When people from my past ask me if I’m happy, I usually reply, “I’m the luckiest guy I’ve ever met.”  I am lucky to have a wife who ignores my inadequacies, my rough edges, my occasional crudity, and loves me with a devotion that is almost frightening.  It is also a gift to love her more than I have ever loved another woman.  I am lucky that my sons seem to be stable and healthy in spite of great tragedy and loss they have endured.  I am lucky to have extended family who may not always understand me and perhaps even worry about me, but who also love me deeply and take joy in my happiness. I am lucky to have been raised by parents and grandparents who encouraged creativity, loved to laugh, believed in the virtue of hard work, and exhibited rock-solid faith in their God and their church.  While not having the advantages afforded by a higher formal education, my parents made the necessary sacrifices to ensure that I received the advanced degrees I desired and that have opened up so many possibilities for me through the years.  I have had some incredibly inspiring teachers.

I have lived almost 56 years with few significant health challenges.  I have some modest talents and skills that are fulfilling to me and that I have been able to share with others.  My wife and I have a standard of living that is not enjoyed by a large majority of the world’s population.  We are grateful, even though we know our generosity does not extend as far as it should.  My career path has presented me with so many memorable encounters and experiences, and I know how rare that privilege is.  Lastly, we have the resources that make it possible for me to rent a cabin in the Appalachian Mountains to be self-indulgent for a weekend and to contemplate the precious gift of a good life that I’m sure I don’t deserve but for which I am eternally grateful.  And to my bride, the love of my life: thank you for giving me this place and time.

Forget the Pencil; Bring Your Pistol

As of today’s date, the “campus carry” bill has already passed the house and senate in Georgia and has been sent to the Governor for his signature.  If the bill becomes law, it will allow students who are 21 or older to carry a concealed weapon on the campuses of state colleges and universities.  Although I have many concerns about students carrying handguns around campus, I do understand the circumstances and fears that led to the push for such legislation.  One of my major concerns is the rhetoric that always seems to surround issues and legislation about weapons in Georgia and around the country.  For instance, when asked why he was supporting this particular bill, a Georgia state legislator purportedly said, “In general, the only people laws affect are those who obey the law.  What we put into law is not going to have any impact on criminals.”

I actually have respect for this legislator, although we are not in the same political camp. This statement no doubt expresses his philosophy and that of many of his constituents where this bill is concerned.  But, is this how we are to regard legislation and laws in our state in general?  If so, then why should the state ever pass any law prohibiting any activity ever again.  Why have laws that prohibit the sale of cocaine or more lethal drugs if the only people such laws affect are those who wouldn’t use the substance in the first place?  Why have laws against aggravated assault if such laws are only obeyed by nonviolent people.  Why have traffic laws or speed limits?

Indeed, why have laws that prevent people from carrying guns into the state capitol?  I suspect these particular laws will remain because the state will make sure it has the law enforcement presence and power to enforce them.  But securing a college campus with law enforcement officers is much more expensive than securing a few state government buildings, right?

I truly do sympathize with parents of students and the students themselves where campus violence has escalated, especially at places like Georgia Tech.  I’m just not yet convinced that encouraging students to arm themselves is the answer.  Incidentally, if the law only allows students 21 and older to carry, then how does this law protect the other 50-75% of students on the campus who will not be able to carry legally?  Have violent crimes only been committed against college students who are over the age of 21?

I fear that when elected officials admit that civility can no longer be maintained by laws, then we have basically given the masses permission to take law enforcement into their own hands.  And, I fear that arming college students sends that message loudly and clearly to young people during a very impressionable period of their lives.  I just hope that Georgians, and Americans for that matter, are not moving toward a paradigm of abandoning the role of law enforcement to serve and protect and moving toward a society where self-defense becomes the expectation rather than the act of last resort.