Monday, August 2, 2010

We don't sell books.

I'm going to tell you a secret. Our business is not selling books.

I realize that's a book you have in your hand. And yes, I know you bought it from us. Okay, so you're on page 253...and how did you get to page 253 without buying a book, and how did you buy the book if we don't sell books? Yes, it's a fair argument to make.

Well, we do sell books. But it's not our business.

And in your heart of hearts, you know it's not our business. And you like what is our business enough to support us. And I find that so groovy it hurts.

We're just like that indie coffee shop that makes a mean mocha and even draws a leaf in the foam. But really, their business isn't selling coffee.

Or we're like that weird vintage store where you cannot find a blow-up poster of a model wearing low-rise jeans to save your life, but you can ask the clerk for a recommendation, and she will give you a hat that fits your head so well that you forget you're wearing it when you go to bed.

We're like a certain theater that still reminds you, before you even cross the lobby, what makes going to the movies special.

We're like a pizza parlor where the owner will sit down and have a soda with you so he can tell you a story while you eat (Richie's in Washington Square, you have my undying pizza devotion).

The thing is, I grew up in a world of chain stores and strip-malls. I remember sitting on the hood of my parent's car in a Target parking lot, arguing with my friends about what we could do and coming to the answer that we could go to the mall or do nothing. And we hated the mall so much by that point that we chose nothing. We spent more hours talking as the sun went down, then piling in the car and going to IHop for breakfast, because it was midnight, and that's what you did at midnight in suburban Arizona.

The thing that makes big stores appealing is what makes them terrible. The sameness of everything. In the south of France, I have sought out McDonald's because I knew their bathrooms would be the same as the ones in America (no hole in the ground will do to receive the remnants of a Big Mac, those chemicals that cannot be digested).

But growing up, I could drive to any number of stores. And they all felt exactly the same. It didn't matter if they had books on their shelves or groceries or electronics or bedding. I could talk to someone with a crisp polo shirt, who would sell me whatever product they had and then try to sell me insurance for it and a special credit card and an extra large popcorn rather than a large or a small (Only fifty cents more. You'd be an idiot not to). I have sold such things in such shirts. Back then my business was selling.

Even our houses, where I lived, were all the same--built to one design: house after house after house. Cookie-cutters.

At one point, my family moved. Not far, but far enough for me to find a store that mattered, someplace interesting. The first day I visited Changing Hands, I spent 100 dollars on books and lit mags. I didn't particularly need either (I have never needed more books in the strictest sense). But I was overjoyed, and I felt richer than I was. I asked the people behind the counter what they recommended and they said names I didn't know. I asked them what they thought of a book in my hand, and they told me they didn't care for it, but that they knew other booksellers who did. I bought a small muffin from their cafe, and they did not offer me an up-sized coffee or an insurance plan.

And I spent hours there, just browsing and reading and knowing that I was somewhere important, someplace that didn't just sell books like they were boxes of cereal or used cars.

I love my neighborhood in Boston. I can get everything I need from people who are there for more than just selling, whose business is people, whose business is making a unique and authentic experience.

And I love that you love my neighborhood too. And my store. And my business.

(Oh, but by the way, we do still sell come here for books too.)

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