The world ended today.
It doesn’t matter that the planet spins on, that tomorrow people will get up and go about their daily lives, that stores will be open and children will be shipped off to school on Monday.
The world ended today.
Not with a bang, or even a whimper, but rather with the rustling of paper and the dispassionate logic of lawyers.
“What happened?” you ask, “What dire event has come to pass that you would declare it as the end of the world?!”
It’s something small in the grand scheme of things, certainly, but something so incredibly pervasive in our “modern” world. Events just like it pass unnoticed by so many, so often, that it’s become almost an inevitability.
Today marked the start of the “Going Out of Business” sale for Between Books, one of the last independent bookstores in Delaware. The store was to have celebrated its 33rd birthday in March, over 25 years in its current location, and all the triumph and tragedy that you can imagine would accumulate in three decades of life.
Places like this aren’t just somewhere you go to buy things. Think “Cheers”, but with books instead of beers, comics instead of cognacs, wondrous things long forgotten by most people still lurking on shelves, dusty and faded perhaps, but no less magical for it.
A place where the staff always knows your name; they know what you like to read, or play, or watch; they know your spouse because it’s entirely possible that you met them right there in front of the cash register, and they’ve seen your kids grow up; crying, crawling, with sticky fingers rummaging around in places they’re not supposed to be, until one day that same child is there at the register buying books of their own.
A place where you can walk in knowing exactly the book you’re looking for, and walk out with an armful you never knew you needed. Where you don’t need to know the name of the book, or the author, just a muddled description of the plot, or maybe even just a faded memory of what the cover looked like, and Greg could pluck it off the shelves in a matter of minutes.
I know these things because I worked at Between Books, in one capacity or another, to one degree or another, since 1997, the day after I walked in and mentioned I was looking for work and Greg hired me on the spot.
He didn’t have to interview me, or check my references, because he knew me. I’d been coming to the store since I was too young to drive, after all, traveling on the bus, or bumming rides from my parents, or even biking all the way out to the store on one impulsive and incredibly ill-advised day. He knew that I was polite, and well-mannered, that I could take a joke as easily as make one, and most importantly he knew that I was a book person.
We can always spot each other, after all. It doesn’t matter if we read the same books, the same authors, or even the same genres; we know our own. You can fake a mastery of pop culture, you can parrot the memes that you’ve seen on the internet, but there are some things that can’t be hidden behind a shallow pretense to knowledge.
So I got the job, and never quite got rid of it. I’d work other jobs for a time, take classes, or just be generally dysfunctional for extended periods, but I could never bring myself to leave all the way. Even if I wasn’t being paid, I’d occasionally stop by and pitch in, since while I might not have been current on everything that was on the shelf, at the very least I can type like a demon and work the inventory entry system better than anyone else ever had.
Greg gave me a place to work when I was at my lowest, when the simple act of being out in public made me afraid and uncomfortable. A place to work where my anxieties and phobias didn’t bother me, because this was a place where I was safe. I was surrounded by people like me, people who loved books with a passion that is rarely seen… outside of books. I didn’t have to be afraid, because like me, they were book people.
A place where everybody knew my name. Largely because at that particular time we were all Chris, thus leading to the joke that Greg only hired people named Chris so he had but one name to remember when he started yelling for help.
This place, this sanctuary, is fading from the world, and we are all poorer for its passing. All the more so because it is not alone in this fate.
Places like this used to be common, the small businesses that formed the beating heart of the communities that accumulated around them like layers of pearl, slowly growing year by year into lustrous jewels beyond price.
We’ve lost that. We threw it away, in fact, sacrificing community on the altar of savings, trading knowledge for selection, and now we’re left with the rotting carcasses of the warehouse stores, themselves devoured in turn by a flagging economy and an ascendent internet.
There’s hope, of course. Hope that the small business will see a resurgence in an age where people have begun to realize what they’ve lost, where that intimate relationship between retailer and consumer means more than a handful of shallow reviews from strangers on the web or a massive box full of things that nobody needs. Hope that Greg will take this chance to revitalize his dream and carry it out into the world anew.
After a suitable vacation, of course. Give the man a break; he’s been running himself ragged for half a decade now, he deserves some down time now that it’s being forced on him.
But for those of you out there that have your own special places, those hubs of community around which we all revolve, I must direct you to the title of this post.
Do not go gentle.
Rage, before you wake up and realize what you’ve lost.