The Independent Bookstore: A Reader’s Oasis

The last Saturday in April is designated as 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 Writer By Any Other Name

One of the most gifted short story writers of the 20th century has a name that is rather unusual, although as a tribute to her talent, it is not as uncommon as it was during her lifetime.  There is a growing population of women, most under the age of thirty I would imagine, with the first name Flannery.  Those who are familiar with the life of the famous Georgia writer know that “Flannery” was a family surname and her middle name.  Her full name was Mary Flannery O’Connor.  However, when she went away to graduate school and eventually enrolled in the Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa, she decided to drop her first name and began signing all her work simply as “Flannery.”   Further, she requested that friends, relatives, and even her own mother refrain from calling her Mary Flannery, the double-name style that was so typical of women in the early to mid-20th century in the American South.  From that point on, she would be Flannery O’Connor.

It is impossible to know how much thought or even strategy went into Flannery O’Connor’s decision to abandon her first name.  Considering that she was raised a devout Roman Catholic and was a dutiful daughter of the Church, it would not have been a choice made lightly or carelessly.  Indeed, someone so committed to the faith would need a very good reason to drop the name of the mother of Christ, especially considering that she was adopting a much more masculine forename or Christian name — the irony is obvious.  Her mother, Regina Cline O’Connor, resisted for a while but finally gave in to her daughter’s demands.  Years later, O’Connor claimed that she made the name change primarily for the sake of her career as a writer.  She explained to friends that no one would want to read anything written by someone named Mary O’Connor, which to her sounded like the name of an Irish wash woman.

On second thought, readers of O’Connor know that she was incredibly deliberate in her craft as a writer.  By the time O’Connor hands us a story, there is not a single word or mark of punctuation left on the page that doesn’t need to be there.  Those steel blue eyes served as windows into a brilliant mind with a razor-sharp wit.  Flannery O’Connor had wanted to be a writer from a very early age.  As a child, she wrote stories, illustrated them, bound them with yarn, and made multiple copies of them to distribute to friends and family.  She was absolutely fascinated by the whole process of both writing and publishing, which later translated to a keen understanding of writing as a profession.

I am convinced that when O’Connor began writing in Iowa in the mid-1940s, she also started to envision herself as a successful author.  Knowing that she would soon be sending manuscripts off to prospective agents and publishers, she no doubt understood her disadvantage of being a female who wanted to be taken seriously in a male-dominated profession.  To avoid having her manuscripts ignored or trashed immediately, she needed for editors to think they were reading the work of a man, and a name like Flannery gave her that edge.  Certainly the content of her fiction would not have given her gender away!  The strategy worked.  Letters she received from editors in response to her early submissions were addressed “Dear Mr. O’Connor.”  One early editor, upon learning O’Connor’s identity, still doubted that the stories were written by a woman at all.

Beyond the androgyny factor, a name like Flannery O’Connor gave the writer another distinct advantage, one that is often fabricated now by entertainers from a multitude of genres.  Having an unusual name goes a long way toward establishing memorable identity.  After all, how many writers do you know named Twain?  Poe?  Steinbeck?  Faulkner?  Of course, those are last names, and isn’t it amazing how often readers don’t refer to O’Connor by her more common last name, but by her iconic first name?  Fast forward to the age of pop culture.  It isn’t difficult to remember names like Cher, Sting, Madonna, Eminem, T-Pain, or Beyonce.  Who needs a last name?  Atypical works, and it works well.

Flannery O’Connor died at the young age of 39 from complications of lupus, the disease that had taken her father’s life when she was only 15.  Her mother outlived her by about 30 years.  I don’t know if O’Connor chose the wording for her tombstone or not.  Perhaps Regina O’Connor had the last word with her only child this time.  Maybe the inscription was dictated by the custom of the Church, the community, or family tradition. Whatever the case may be, O’Connor is laid to rest with her full name restored as a memorial to a literary genius.  Those of us who admire her work will always respect her wishes and remember her as Flannery O’Connor.  A writer by any other name is, well, someone else entirely.

Flannery O'Connor's grave
Flannery O’Connor’s grave

The Reading Spot

If you are an avid reader, then you most likely have a favorite place to read.  I have certainly had some nice ones over the decades: a legless chair on the floor in the corner of my room as a teen, a library study room in college, an office in my first house, a recliner in my second house, a comfy chair in the loft overlooking the lake in the first house with my wife, and now an even more comfortable chair in our living room where I can watch the birds feeding with the forest as a backdrop.  There are loads of Pinterest pages devoted to reading spots, blogs that explore their enchantment, and even an Annual Unusual Reading Spot Contest .

Designating a space for reading gives the activity a certain reverence, doesn’t it?  Not that we can’t do something else in that space, but we associate it with the pleasure of being immersed in someone else’s imagination (and our own), research, or advice.  The reading spot becomes a type of sanctuary, where the reader deliberately separates herself from her surroundings, and when she leaves the spot, she is not the same ever again.  Alice is indeed in Wonderland.

I also, through the decades, have developed the habit of rising as early as I can to read. That is to say, I get up as early as I can drag out of bed with enough sleep to function for the day.  I am most alert early in the morning and can focus on the words.  A cup of coffee and a book are the most perfect early-morning companions, aside from my wife, that I can imagine.

A Passing Literary Glance

The Georgia Writers’ Association held its 1955 annual meeting in Atlanta in early December.  On this occasion the Association honored Lillian Smith (social justice advocate and author of the controversial works Strange Fruit, Killers of the Dream, and The Journey) as the winner of the Georgia Writers’ Award for the best book of nonfiction with the most literary value written by a Georgian in 1954.  She felt the award was overdue but was proud at any rate that the Association exhibited the courage to recognize her importance as an artist.  Smith was terribly amused by the annual meeting – a sentiment I can almost imagine would have been shared by another Georgia writer named Flannery O’Connor who was also in attendance.

Lillian Smith
Lillian Smith

Lillian Smith was not invited to speak at the award ceremony; however, after meeting her and talking with her, the organizers decided to ask her to give an impromptu speech the next day, which she did.  Afterwards, an elderly woman in the audience came up to compliment the writer on how sweet and well-bred she was, exclaiming that Lillian Smith must have had the best intentions in the world, regardless of what she may have written in her books.  On the previous day, Flannery O’Connor delivered a luncheon address to this convention titled “Some Problems of the Southern Writer.”  Lillian Smith was at the luncheon, and this is what she had to say about O’Connor’s presentation:

Flannery’s talk was one of the funniest things I ever listened to.  Do you know – I don’t believe she had the vaguest notion how she shocked the crowd.  She told em off; told Georgia off; told the South off; told would-be writers off. . . . The stuffed shirts and the would-be writers (the place was full of them) began listening smilingly because they had heard she was “literary” and “talented” and nothing she wrote threatened anybody, certainly not on the conscious levels of their life.  But after about two paragraphs they realized that a nice little snake was sinking her fangs deep into their complacency and they began to look at each other and shake their coiffured heads and whisper, “Well . . . .what do you know . . .”
(all quotations from How Am I To Be Heard: Letters of Lillian Smith, edited by Margaret Rose Gladney; The University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, 1993)

Smith mentioned O’Connor’s presentation in a letter to her editor at Viking Press, Denver Lindley, who also served as an editor for Flannery O’Connor.  There was a tone of bitterness, if not irritation, when Smith wrote that “these young writers can now say things out loud without any realization, actually, of how one or two of us down in the South opened the way for them.”

As far as I know, this was the only time that Lillian Smith and Flannery O’Connor were in the same room together, although they lived only 150 miles apart.  O’Connor confided to her friend Cecil Dawkins that, although she considered Lillian Smith to be a nice person, O’Connor was not impressed with Smith’s writing.  In a letter dated December 2, 1955, to Lon and Fanny Cheney, Flannery O’Connor stated that, at the Association meeting, Lillian Smith invited her for a visit to her home, but O’Connor declined.  In her essay titled “Flannery O’Connor and Lillian Smith: A Missed Opportunity,” published in the 2007 issue of the Flannery O’Connor Review, Virginia Wray observes that O’Connor’s brief remarks about her fellow Georgia writer in this letter carry with them a tone of sarcastic dismissal.  I know those who have studied O’Connor’s life are shocked by this revelation!  It’s no secret that O’Connor reserved some of her most acidic comments for other writers, especially those close to home.  O’Connor’s comments about Smith were rather tame by comparison.

Lillian Smith would go on to publish several more books, fiction and nonfiction, and numerous articles and essays on social justice and racial equality.  The last book published before her death came out in 1964, the year that Flannery O’Connor died; however, she continued to contribute to periodicals and newspapers until her own death on September 28, 1966.  One of the pieces Lillian Smith wrote for publication the year before she died was a book review for the Chicago Tribune.  The title of the review was “With a Wry Smile Hovering Over All.”  As fate would have it, Lillian Smith would get the proverbial last word in this evaluation of Flannery O’Connor’s second collection of short stories, Everything That Rises Must Converge.  It is worth noting that Smith and O’Connor had both developed an admiration for Teilhard de Chardin, although Smith claimed that, in the title story of the collection, O’Connor had twisted the Jesuit priest’s “profound and poetic vision into something small enough for her to smile at wryly.”  With regard to the other stories in the collection, Smith perceived that the author’s point of view lacked compassion and empathy, which should make us all wonder if she read O’Connor’s first collection of short stories.  Still, Lillian Smith considered O’Connor to be a highly gifted writer and described the title story as a masterpiece, where every line counts, every word.  No fan of O’Connor’s work could disagree with that assessment.

The Mountains Are Calling . . .

One of the most magnificent places I have ever visited is Yosemite National Park in California.  Ancient glacier activity in this region of the High Sierra left behind enormous rock formations that created a natural cathedral unsurpassed by anything ever designed by human minds or hands.  One of the early Europeans to explore the valley described it in these same terms.  John Muir visited Yosemite several times in the 19th and early 20th centuries, spending several years there in spite of the fact that he had a wife and children in San Francisco.  His appreciation for the beauty and wildness of Yosemite drove him to fight for its long-term preservation.  Some battles he lost, but by and large, his petitions to government officials are responsible for the establishment of the national park there.

Yosemite Valley
Yosemite Valley from Glacier Point

Lately I have been reading Muir’s descriptions of the land forms, his detailed identification of the flora and fauna, and his natural history of Yosemite in selections from the e-book, The Collected Works of John Muir.  I am amazed at how much ground he was able to cover and the extent to which he cataloged so many of the species in the area.  Without the aid of modern equipment or the assistance of the infrastructure later installed for hikers, Muir explored parts of the valley and surrounding region that only the most experienced hikers and climbers would attempt today. He craved the wilderness almost like a lover.  In the mountains and forests he found adventure, inspiration, stimulation, and peace.  For those who have visited Yosemite and were left speechless by its wonders, I highly recommend John Muir’s works — he manages to articulate what I could not put into words when I first saw this marvelous spectacle.

Opportunity of a Lifetime

As I have indicated before, I began my career as a librarian in a medium-sized public library in a small county of around 42,000 people.  As is typical in small communities, there were plenty of personal interconnections.  When I graduated with an MA in History in 1985 from a state college in this same county, I started work shelving and cataloging books in the public library.  With the encouragement, patience, and generous assistance from the library director, I and another worker in the library commuted to Emory University twice a week for two years to complete our Masters degrees in Librarianship (MLn).  I served as a reference librarian for most of my fifteen years there, but when the director left during my twelfth year, I was offered the position.  I served as the library’s director for three years.

One morning, during the spring of my last year, the husband of our children’s librarian walked into my office to say he had a proposition for me.  His wife was serving in this position at the library before I began there.  Her husband was a local attorney.  I knew them both very well — we attended social events and my first wife and I had even house-sat for them and had taken care of their two children for a weekend.  As it happened, he was the lawyer for the estate of a major American writer, who also was (and still is) one of my favorite authors: Flannery O’Connor.  She had lived a good portion of her life in this town where her family had deep roots going back to the early 19th century.  She spent the last thirteen years of her life at the family’s farm, called Andalusia, located on the north end of town.

foc_eberhart_photo
Flannery O’Connor
His clients were two sisters who were also first cousins of O’Connor.  Flannery O’Connor died in 1964, but her mother, Regina, lived until 1995.  As executors of Regina O’Connor’s estate, these two women were also in charge of Flannery O’Connor’s literary estate, which was primarily administered through a trust that had been established by Regina O’Connor’s will.  As co-executors and co-trustees, one of their responsibilities was to establish a non-profit foundation to maintain Andalusia as a proper memorial to O’Connor and also to perpetuate her legacy as a writer.  They needed someone to help establish this organization.  They also needed someone to work with a sizable archive of personal papers, correspondence, writings, photographs, memorabilia, and artifacts belonging to Flannery O’Connor.  The archive needed to be organized, cataloged, and properly stored for preservation purposes.  The co-executors asked the lawyer to find someone who might be interested and capable of doing both of these tasks.  He came to my office in the library that spring day, explained the proposition from the estate, and asked me if I would consider taking the job as an independent consultant working for the co-executors.  I accepted, which changed almost everything for me.

I will no doubt dedicate several future posts recounting my experiences as a consultant and then later the director of the Flannery O’Connor-Andalusia Foundation that I assisted in establishing.  I was there for thirteen years — as long as Flannery O’Connor lived there.  That was long enough, or arguably, a bit too long.  While I can look back and think about plenty of mistakes I made and how I should have made different decisions, I don’t have any real regrets.  With a BA in English, an MA in History, and an MLn, I don’t think I could have been any better suited for the job with regard to my education and training.  I had the help of some talented and dedicated mentors, board members, volunteers, colleagues, and for a few years, a trusted co-worker and friend.  What I can state with absolute certainty is that this path that departed from my expected trajectory led me to some of the richest experiences I have ever had and offered me opportunities that other people with my education and training will, sadly, never enjoy.  I am humbly grateful, and hope that Flannery O’Connor would be pleased with the work we accomplished at Andalusia.

What Separates Us from Dogs and Cabbage

Advanced communication is one of the achievements of human beings that sets us apart from the rest of the living world.  To paraphrase one of my most influential college professors: “Language is what separates us from dogs and cabbage.”  As humans, we have fairly sophisticated language skills that take the form of speaking, singing, gesturing, signing, etc.  But other members of the animal kingdom possess forms of these skills too, and some of them have surpassed our own capabilities.  What truly distinguishes us intellectually as a species is the higher brain function we have acquired, and I believe the best illustration of that gift is in written communication. The ability to pass along information from one person to another through writing was one of the hallmarks that transformed homo sapiens into civilized human beings and paved the way for rapid advancement.  Sadly, literacy is a privilege that is terribly under appreciated in this country, especially when we consider that 774 million adults around the world cannot read or write.  In the United States, most people over the age of fifteen can read and write at a very basic level, but we live in one of the most advanced countries in the world.  Shouldn’t we expect much more than just basic written communication skills?

Most of us know that, in order to write well, we must read — a lot.  To write better, we need to read more and read good writing (this is beginning to sound like a first-grade reader, in fact).  I think it is at this crucial point that we fail.  I am shining the light primarily on the United States, although this problem likely extends to a good portion of the developed countries around the world.  In this country, the masses don’t spend much time reading at all.  There are far too many other sources of information and entertainment available other than the written word.  I am not referring to the Internet necessarily, because there is plenty of writing, and even good writing, available on the Web.  Then again, the Web offers so many alternatives to writing also, which do present quite a distraction.  I am certainly not referring to e-books either, which in spite of their dubious reputation in the eyes of some traditionalists and obsessive bibliophiles, are another source of writing.

So now let’s narrow it down to the folks who DO like to read.  According to Pew Research Center, as of January 2014 some 76% of American adults ages 18 and older said that they read at least one book in the past year.  The typical American reads about five books a year, which isn’t extremely impressive, but at least they’re reading . . . something.  However, 24% of Americans don’t crack a book at all, and the number of non-book-readers has nearly tripled since 1978.  Again, we have more distractions to pull us away from reading.  As the comedian John Caparulo says in one of his more ridiculous routines, “Books suck!  That’s why they invented movies.  Who the hell reads?”

Now, before the 76% of American readers starts to get too cocky, I will make one final disturbing observation, and it relates to Caparulo’s point.  Most Americans who read do so only for one purpose: to be entertained.  Before going further, let me say that reading should  be entertaining, but if reading is going to continue to raise us above the levels of dogs and cabbage, then what we read should do more than just entertain us.  It should change us, challenge us, move us, and sometimes even call us to action. This standard not only applies to nonfiction — it goes for novels, short stories, poetry, and drama.  The embarrassing truth is that far too many Americans judge the merit of a book by whether or not it has been made into a blockbuster movie. I would venture to say that the majority of people who went to see the movie The Color Purple when it came out in 1985 had not read the Pulitzer-prize winning novel by Alice Walker, but after seeing the movie praised the book as a masterpiece.  One has to wonder if Gone with the Wind would still be the best-selling book of all time if it had not been made iconic by the motion picture that followed.

We have access through numerous vehicles to the world’s greatest works of literature — from ancient sacred texts to modern classics from various cultures.  Why would we waste what little time we have in this life on anything less precious?  Of course, I phrase that question knowing full well that I am guilty of seeking shallow entertainment all the time, but I have not forsaken the pursuit of fine literature in the process.  We can have both.  But, to spend a lifetime completely absent of serious writing seems to me such a tragic existence for a species with the mental capacity to appreciate it and pass it on to the next generation.

Slavery by Another Name by Douglas Blackmon

In his Pulitzer-prize-winning book, Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II, historian Douglas Blackmon brings to light one of the most shameful chapters in American history—an “Age of Neoslavery” that thrived from the aftermath of the Civil War through the dawn of World War II.  Having been raised in the Southeast where these atrocities flourished in the decades leading up to the time I was born in 1960, reading this exposé was both painful and illuminating for me — it is one of the best works of nonfiction I have read in many years.

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Under laws enacted specifically to intimidate blacks, tens of thousands of African- Americans were arbitrarily arrested, hit with outrageous fines, and charged for the costs of their own arrests. With no means to pay these ostensible “debts,” prisoners were sold as forced laborers to coal mines, lumber camps, brickyards, railroads, quarries, and farm plantations. Thousands of other African-Americans were simply seized by southern landowners and compelled into years of involuntary servitude. Government officials leased falsely imprisoned blacks to small-town entrepreneurs, provincial farmers, and dozens of corporations—including U.S. Steel—looking for cheap and abundant labor. Armies of “free” black men labored without compensation, were repeatedly bought and sold, and were forced through beatings and physical torture to do the bidding of white masters for decades after the official abolition of American slavery.

This book is a moving, sobering account of a little-known crime against African-Americans, and the insidious legacy of racism that reverberates today.  In light of events involving law enforcement and the legal system with regard to black people over the past year, this book is extremely relevant.  It should be required reading in most southern history college courses, and it should be considered strongly for most advanced American history courses. It is well researched, thoroughly documented, and extremely compelling.  Blackmon is such a good writer.

John Irving – A Prayer for Owen Meany

If you haven’t read at least one book by John Irving, then you are missing out on one of the best modern American novelists.  I have read a few of Irving’s works, but none was as brilliant to me as A Prayer for Owen Meany.  A tragic accident brings the two main characters together and links them in a mystery that defines their lives.

I read this novel many years ago, and like many other books from my past, I have forgotten so much of it.  Prolific readers have to come to terms with this unavoidable reality — most of us simply can’t retain the vast majority of what we read.  And, I don’t read all that much.  What is encouraging to me is the side benefit of reading, especially serious fiction.  I may not remember character’s names, specific events, or even the story line, but I know that great books have an impact on my way of thinking and the way I view the world and my own journey.  Sometimes, they alter my path and help me find new avenues that I had no idea existed.

I really wasn’t looking for Christian symbolism when I read this book, but by the time I finished, I had decided that Owen Meany WAS Christ.  Someday I want to return to this novel to see how different my reaction to it will be.  In fact, I would like to do the same thing with several other titles.  So many books, so little time . . . .

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Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan – Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors

Reading is easily one of my favorite activities.  Outside of newspapers, magazines, and websites, I tend to read more novels than anything else.  I like the immersion experience and the sense of accomplishment after finishing a well-written novel.  However, I do enjoy nonfiction works, and I gravitate toward works on history, religion, and natural science.  I am also fascinated by human origins, evolution, and anthropology.  There are a few books I can recall that truly had a life-altering effect on my way of thinking.  One of those was Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors by the late Carl Sagan and co-authored by Ann Druyan.

First published in 1992, this book is an exploration of who we are and how human beings have been shaped by the development of the planet over millions of years.  The authors explore origins of traits central to our current predicament: sex and violence, love and altruism, hierarchy, consciousness, language, technology, and morality.  It is easily the best book on human origins and anthropology for the lay-reader that I have ever read. I’m sure some scholars in the field are still not fond of Sagan’s work, but he really did a good job of making science accessible and fascinating for the rest of us.  For that effort and accomplishment, I am grateful.