In Praise of Bookstores

 ~~This is a re-post from 2013, when Harvard Book Store, Cambridge, MA, was voted best bookstore in Boston in the A-list of Boston.  This morning, by chance, I found out that Harvard Book Store was voted best bookstore for 2017.  Since 2013, I have only grown to love this bookstore even more.  A couple of years ago, I read there from a collection of travel writing. The bookstore had solicited submissions for an anthology of travel writing, which was to be printed at the bookstore’s then-new-and-very-exciting printing machine.  My essay was about Ramallah, Palestine.  It was a great evening of literature and conversation and togetherness, not unlike those better-known readings by more famous writers that the bookstore organizes each month.

The 2017 award may be old news (I did not participate in the survey this year), but anything to do with bookstores is always current, and occasion for celebration. Here is, then, my tribute to Harvard Book Store, a special place for me and thousands from all over the world.~~

harvard-book-storeThis is a post to promote bookstores.  Yes, yes, we’ve done it before, talked about the vanishing bookstore and how it is so difficult nowadays to get up, go to a good bookstore (if you can find one anymore), browse around, buy something and come home.  Yes, we’re all guilty of wanting to do the right thing but ending up buying on-line.  We’ve become lazy, let’s face it.  And we’ve become impatient, of waiting, but also of the mystery of waiting.

But there it was, in black and white, on the receipt which my friend A. handed to me the other day when she returned from Harvard Book Store.  She was visiting from Europe, and one of the first places she went was this wonderful, literate bookstore in Cambridge, still independent, still open until 11:00 at night, still selling books, and of late, delivering orders on bicycle in Cambridge.  Harvard Bookstore has been one of  my favorite bookstores, too, but truth be told, I had slipped, I had succumbed, I had entered the amazonian realm of on-line orderings.

This is what the slip said:  How much money stays in your community when you spend $100?  At a locally owned business: $68. At a chain store:  $43.  At Amazon:$00.

This morning, I was re-reading John Berger, whose work is occasion for solace and renewal.  I needed both.  And then I thought of another book of Berger’s–Bento’s Sketchbook.

My first impulse was to go to the amazonian screen, but I resisted the urge.  The book was available at the Harvard Book Store, but I had decided to order it from them even if they did not have it on their shelves.  The gentleman with whom I spoke had a human voice, spoke cordially, and may know Berger’s work.  This last point is important because the chain bookstores are no alternative to on-line bookstores.  Chain store staff are peopled often by college kids who have very limited experience in books, think of books as things on shelves–like Cola or condoms.  At least that’s been my experience whenever I have gone into one of the chains and asked about a book whose title I was not sure about.  The kids–bless their hearts!–  stare back at me as though I were someone from the age when dinosaurs roamed the earth.


Not so at places like Harvard Book Store.  One winter night, late, I went into the bookstore, looking for a book.  I was in Harvard Square to see a movie, and after that wanted to meander just a little.  It was snowing outside; I had limited time and  the last bus to catch home.  The place was packed with people; the ambient noise was pleasant; the atmosphere alive but restrained.  I found the book I wanted, talked to the gentleman at the counter (he had white hair; had read quite a few books, I suspect), and then walked out into the night.

Bookstore are places of encounter and places of community–with books, with readers, with strangers.  The great bookstores in our lives–mine have been Khayyat’s in Beirut, Chatterton’s in LA, Oshagan Bookstore in Aleppo, and several others in places as diverse as Amman, Paris, Jerusalem–have staying power beyond their warehouse functions.

To this day, I know what I bought at Khayyat’s bookstore, on Bliss Street, yes Bliss, from the founder of the American University of Beirut.  I remember the cover of the book, the sense of excitement I felt, the person I was with when we went in.  I was 17 or 18 at the time, the first time I myself was buying a book. The first time.~




About Taline Voskeritchian

Writing teacher at Boston University; translator (from Arabic and Armenian); prose writer; occasional editor; incurable wanderer.
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