The Death of a Bookstore

I’ve been a reader for most of my four decades, and I’m often amazed by the power of beautiful language.

In grade school, I would sometimes get books from the town library. I still fondly remember the giant, slowly rotating globe near the circulation desk. I also liked a bookstore called Schillers; I’d go whenever I could convince my parents to take me there, even if it was just to browse. But my favorite place to get books was the used, dusty bookstore down the street, the Paperback Trader.

Somehow, books that had already been read seemed more friendly: It was okay to maybe fold a page over, or not finish a book I disliked, when the book had the bookstore’s stamp on the front page, and maybe had a previous owner’s name written in it. Sometimes I found an old receipt or shopping list that somebody had used as a bookmark.

Now, I live half a state and thirty years away from that store. I edit books for a living: I love teasing out meaning by adding a comma here, removing an extraneous word there. Successfully reversing the order of a difficult passage can make my afternoon. But despite the euphoric nature of my freelance career, I have days when I’m sick and tired of working in the house. I escape by riding my bike downtown; it’s about the same distance I used to ride to get to the Paperback Trader.

My favorite place for a scenery change at the moment is a bookstore and cafe called Nighthawk Books. It opened a few months before I started freelancing. At home I have music and a desk and fast internet and coffee, but at Nighthawk I have… well, there I have all the same things. But I don’t have to clean the coffeepot, and they have cookies.

There, I’m surrounded by books.

Nighthawk’s small rooms are filled near to the ceiling with shelves of books. There are crates of unsorted books that I’ll sometimes look through. Many shelves have hidden rows of books waiting for you if you push the visible books aside, and sometimes I’ll find treasures there.

The atmosphere is familiar, unintimidating, and a boon to concentration. On those days when focus escapes me, Nighthawk lets me hit the reset button and get some work done. I wish I had thought of bringing my homework to the Paperback Trader.

But now, in the days of the read-all-you-want business model, running a used bookstore is a difficult business to succeed at. Your primary product is the environment—those rooms of overstuffed bookshelves—and a personality. Owners and clerks at used bookshops almost always have something interesting to say about books, even if it’s not the book you’re looking for. But you don’t come into a used bookstore looking for a specific book, unless the store is very large indeed. You go there looking for the ill-defined something to read. People don’t open these places to get rich, they open them because they goddamn love books. And this store hasn’t made the mistake of buying every book that comes through its door: Every volume there has been filtered by what the owner thinks he can sell.

Thinking back on the last few weeks, I think I’ve been avoiding the place, just a bit. Nighthawk has announced they won’t be staying in business much longer. Forget about bringing a laptop and working, I just feel bad—and a little guilty—going into an on-the-edge bookstore. The business model of the bookstore-cafe is clearly broken, and am I helping it along by just being there and sucking up wifi? Does this make me a bad person, just a little bit?

And sometimes, on a day when Nighthawk is closed (and maybe when they’re open), I’ll go and do my work in the town library. I sit and I write at my favorite table: a round, dark brown plastic woodgrain affair, with three or four armless red chairs. If my Macbook needs power, why, the table is within reach of an electrical outlet set in a gap in the blue, patterned carpet. But libraries are transparent places, and don’t offer anything like the prickly, opinionated proprietor of Nighthawk.

Small used shops don’t have the sheer number of organized books as a library, but Nighthawk is the best place in town for me to sit and concentrate and pound out those damn pages, especially the pages that I wish I could spend more time on. And there, I see people who love to read, and unlike in the library, they’ll talk to me. Those conversations inspire me.

And when the store closes? I’ll probably go to the library more often, maybe to one of the other cafes in the area. It’ll be quiet there, and very easy to concentrate while I sit at that round table, but it won’t be as inspiring. When I’m at Nighthawk, my editorial powers of deduction are just a little bit sharper.

Now, the store looks a little emptier each time I’m there, and the cold drinks refrigerator has been sold off. A dry-erase sign in the front yard declares that all books can be had for a dollar. Over the last two years, I’ve done what I can to spread the word about this store. People who used to express indifference about this place are now saying that the loss of Nighthawk is a loss to the community.

I’ll go to other places when Nighthawk shuts its doors. But, for me, I can manufacture the most inspiration at a used bookstore, where I’m constantly assured that books and language are loved.

Thanks to Julie Goldberg of Perfect Whole for her very blunt and insightful editorial assistance with this piece.

Neil Fein is a freelance editor. On the side, he’s the guitarist in the band Baroque & Hungry, he rides his bicycle as much as he can, and he paints when the mood strikes him.


5 thoughts on “The Death of a Bookstore

  1. It’s happening everywhere, and it’s a crying shame. And it’s not just used book stores that are closing — it’s book stores, period! And publishers. It’s an industry in real trouble and the trouble with that is, there is a real risk that there are generations to come who will never know the joy we get from holding and reading books … loving everything from the smell of the paper, to the weight in our hands, and the wonderful places, people and ideas they introduce us to.

  2. Great piece, Neil.

    A day is coming soon when only old people (i.e., us) will remember these places where people could go to surround themselves with books and the culture of books. We need to celebrate them while they’re here, and leave a record for posterity once they’re gone. You’ve done that work here.

  3. Not only are the small bookstores closing but libraries in our area are not going to be open as often. Edison libraries lost $300,000 and will now be closed 2 days a week. Such a shame.

  4. I agree with Julie, the issue is that we need resurrect the culture of books. When I go to a used book store, I treat it like an archeological adventure, and there is treasure to be found. But the book worm is a lonely creature, and that’s what needs to be changed for book stores to survive. We need to create social activities around books.
    But I have to say, I think Nighthawk was a different story. They didn’t do enough to make the store successful. I know the faces you generally see at Rutgers open mics, and they weren’t at the Nighthawk open mic night, they didn’t know it was there. When I would go into the book store, I would find the owner disinterested in my patronage. The last time I was there, I was ignored as I searched the tea shelf for a cup, and when I finally got a cup of tea, he told me he couldn’t break the $20 I was trying to for it with. I had a lot of hope for Nighthawk. It was a concept with a lot of potential, but it lacked the execution needed, and I feel kind of betrayed by the owner for that.

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