It was Independent Bookstore Week in New York City---a celebration of the kind of indie bookstore that drives the plot of the movie You've Got Mail, where the spunky independent bookseller faces down the soulless discount chain store. But while we all tend to root for the spunky indie seller (until we're craving the Starbucks at the chain store cafe), what makes an independent bookstore better? Independent isn't better by default, but when it connects us to the past and breaks down our obsession with all things shiny and new, it's good.
Three Lives and Company is an independent bookstore that the Greenwich Village Historical Society named "a pocket of civility." It seemed, however, like a mini Barnes & Noble---it looked like Barnes & Noble, and had the same books and same prices but with a more invested and attentive staff. I asked for the book my book club is reading---Lorrie Moore's A Gate at the Stairs---and opened it up. It was like any book I could buy at any other store, so I put it back.
But then I walked a block down the street to Bonnie Slotnick Cookbooks, a bookstore that specializes in old and antique cookbooks, and one of the founding members of Independent Booksellers New York. It was a narrow, one-room store with barely enough room for two people to browse. There was a little collection of vintage Thanksgiving postcards tucked into plastic sleeves with faded calligraphy still legible. An antique stove was stacked high with antique wooden rolling pins and old, bright crockery. A box of old cookie cutters sat on the floor next to it. A row of vintage aprons was clothespinned to a string across the window. On a chair sat a plate of delicate cookies that a friend of the bookstore had baked in celebration of Independent Bookstore Week. On the bookstore door, in the middle of newspaper clippings and bumper stickers celebrating old books, there was a faded, typed recipe for French Apple Pie.
It connected the present to the past. It reminded me of the last book we read in our book club, The Supper of the Lamb---a book on the theology of cookery that all of us avow has changed our lives. It's a book that says God gives us good---even fatty and rich---food as part of His superfluous goodness and that we should savor the gifts He gives. It was written in 1967, even younger than the postcards in the store. Both the book and bookstore linked me to a time when people still enjoyed eating God's gifts instead of viewing them with gloomy neurosis, and the average American spent more than 27 minutes in food preparation a day.
I wanted to buy books, canisters, and antique cooking utensils to give away for Christmas, but I wasn't sure how my friends would react to receiving old things instead of new. Sometimes things like this seem dingy pulled from their context, and an old gift seems thoughtless instead of thoughtful. But I don't think it would seem so if we had a better appreciation for the past, which is why stores like this are good for us. If we saw these things more, we might appreciate them, savor them, and learn.