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Friday, April 13, 2012


A well-wishing reader suggests that I patronize bookstores instead of in order to help slow the seemingly unstoppable death of the old-fashioned bookstore.  I have a great fondness for the sort of bookstore he is referring to -- not the big flashy Barnes and Noble kind that seems to have more toys and coffee and tshachkes than real books, but the lovely little academic bookstore that could be counted on to carry all the latest serious works in a wide range of fields.

Now, as it happens, the copy of the GROUNDWORK I ordered was secondhand, so I was in fact patronizing one of the hundreds of bookstores whose stock is linked to Amazon's computers.  But that is not the nub of the problem.  I live in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, home to the flagship campus of the University of North Carolina system.  UNC-Chapel Hill is a large and distinguished campus, with a great many faculty in residence and a large graduate student population.  And yet, there is not a decent book store in the entire town!  The closest bookstore that is even notionally like the sort of bookstore I remember is on 9th street in Durham, near Duke University, and it really is little more than a supplier of assigned texts in Duke courses.  The bookstore in the middle of Chapel Hill turns out to be almost entirely devoted to Tar Heel sports memoribilia.

Since I have only lived here for four years, I do not know whether there ever was a good bookstore in town, driven to the wall by the competition of, but as things are now, if I want an academic book, Amazon is really my only option.  The fact that it is incredibly convenient does not hurt.  [I mean, at two a.m., when I have arisen for a while, as most old guys do, I can with one click purchase any book Amazon and its network of second hand bookstores offers, and expect it to arrive by mail two or three days later.]


Sean said...

Which is to say nothing of the Kindle, a now-indispensable part of my life. When I finish a book and don't wish to go to sleep just yet, I can order another without getting up, receive it in less than one minute, and continue reading! Naturally this development means I am spending rather more money on books.

Superfluous Man said...


They link to virtually every book selling service on the Internet. I realize Amazon is the fastest if you buy new but used usually comes media mail unless you specifically pay extra for faster service like Priority mail or next day.

I forget that all these things I have learned from years and years of being on the internet are not common knowledge. My mistake and I apologize.

Superfluous Man said...

Powell's is also good. Barnes and Noble is also a possibility. Both are more "blue" than Amazon. You can also try Alibris which has many independent bookstores and booksellers who list on their site. I don't recommend driving to get a book unless there is a very local bookstore and I understand the stock at the independents is small. But crowdsourcing is what does. And Alibris which has many independent sellers. All sellers get ratings over time so look for good ratings. I typically look on before I go anywhere else.

Jim said...

Professor Wolff –

I sympathize with your complaint about finding no decent bookstores in Chapel Hill. I currently live in Philadelphia, home to the University of Pennsylvania, Temple University and Drexel University – as well as the Moore College of Art and the University of the Arts – internationally recognized schools all. Despite the presence of these institutions (and all the faculty and students that accompany them), the paucity of good bookstores in Philadelphia is dispiriting. While this can in part be attributed to the increasing influence of online booksellers, I believe there is another element that contributes to the perception of an overall lack of good bookstores generally. If anyone has spent any amount of time in the Boston/Cambridge area (or, to a lesser extent, the Pioneer Valley of Western Massachusetts), you have been spoiled rotten by the number, quality and diversity of bookstores that can be found in that region. After such exposure, most other areas pale in comparison. Gone are the days when I could simply pop in to the Harvard Bookstore, the Star Bookshop or Pangloss and find just about any esoteric title I was looking for. Goliard Books in Amherst is no more, but Raven Books in Northampton is still good. The Montague Bookmill in Montague, MA is good, but its geographical location necessitates an extended road trip. What to do? Amazon, ABE, and fill the void remarkably well. Nine times out of ten I try to purchase from an independent seller registered on those sites. Hell, I used to structure my vacations around bookstore destinations. Alas, no more.

-- Jim

Adam said...

There is in fact a very nice bookstore in Chapel Hill. The Bookshop is on the western end of Franklin st. before you reach Carrboro, right near Mediterranean Deli. Here's their website:

Robert Paul Wolff said...

If you mean the leftie anarchist bookshop, it is nice, but its selection of serious academic books is rather slender.

Unknown said...

The Bookshop is different from The Internationalist (the anarchist store). It is a very good second-hand bookstore with a number of rare items. I've found quite a few gems there during my time at Chapel Hill, and would definitely recommend a visit. I don't think it's what you have in mind, though.

formerly a wage slave said...

I guess it's true to say that I read your (RPW's) original entry and the comments with a sinking feeling. I myself have no ready access to bookstores living where I presently do. Moreover, I am disgusted by "Barnes and Noble". There is, in addition to everything else, a sort of pretentiousness about the place--but there is a terrible stratification in the USA when it comes to all things cultural........So, I order on-line from a monster, and have even published with them. Respectable publishers have had no interest in my novel. Moreover, if I want to buy groceries I have to drive a car---which in and of itself I find to be an unpleasant experience. So, for me, purchasing books from an entity that shouldn't be in existence is only one part of a broader ugliness.
I will add one comment for the sake of a certain variety:

During the time I lived in Bratislava (roughly 1996 to 2008, with gaps), there were initially a good number of bookstores with a reasonably diverse selection of books. That changed drastically with the creation of shopping centers outside of the city center. (It is not only the USA which is in decline; it's the world--but, what a big difference it makes if a place starts from higher ground before the flood starts....)

PS With a sinking feeling, I can recount the following: when the UK giant "Tesco" first came to SK--and, just in case you don't know, Tesco is something like a UK version of Wal Mart--I knew Slovaks who were suspicious, who believed that a foreign-owned store must have higher prices. But Tesco was clever. They undercut the competition by offering low prices on the rolls which are a basic part of the local diet. And when I purchase books on line at lower prices (because my financial resources are limited) I iknow very well that I am setting myself up just as much as the Slovaks who bought their cheap rolls at Tesco, thereby making it harder for smaller grocery stores to remain in business.

Adam said...

The Bookshop is indeed an all purpose used book store. I've made lots of great finds there--it seems to be a place where retiring faculty and graduating students will sell off old books. The inventory is too large and varied to intuit the political affiliations of the owners.

Debbylee said... also offers a good selection including books from smaller booksellers around the country, free shipping and excellent customer service. I was able to get all the texts for my Yoga Teacher Training...some new, some used and all in superior condition. Also books I have been unable to find on Amazon. Worth checking out. I have recently found a lovely bookstore in Concord, Mass. and feel fortunate to have a nearly local.