Musings on Times Past and Present

In 2003 I spent a semester in Florence, Italy. Although I was there through my University’s own program, we were housed in apartments scattered throughout the city rather than in one primary location. This offered the natural opportunity to visit different neighborhoods and to patronize many different shops. Italy was still filled with all the little specialty shops that once populated even small cities of the US. Although there were larger supermercati for grocery shopping, if you so wished, I saw none of the behemoth “supercenter” type stores so common here. Indeed, even with supermercati large and small, the specialty food shops still seemed to thrive. Bread shops and vegetable stands, pasta shops and meat shops. Then of course, all the other stores: art stores (a must in Florence!), stationary stores, kitchen stores, music stores, chocolate stores, luggage stores, art galleries, touristy stores. One of my favorites, Il Plastico, was a store dedicated solely to architectural model-building supplies.

And there were bookstores. One full of textbooks for American students. Another for tourists, with art and travel texts. Italian chain stores, multistory, but only housing books–art books, cookbooks, travel books, local books, architecture books, literary books, original-language books. Used bookstores, stacks overflowing in unrestrained, unorganized glory. Book stands on the street. Museum stores, prominently featuring catalogues and artist biographies.

I don’t know what the really big cities in the US are like, but in my hometown, a smallish city, little specialty stores are all but gone. The downtown is hollowed out, storefronts empty and abandoned or filled by government or social services agencies. A few fortunate blocks are filled with artists’ galleries and restaurants. The “specialty” stores meanwhile are massive, well away from downtown, in  suburban shopping districts accessible only by motorized transport.

And the only bookstore is closing.

Most of the old independents are gone, shuttered by competition from large chains and online stores. Only a few used paperback stores remained to compete with the local Borders, which, for all the faults of helping push the independents out, remained well-stocked and well-used, consistently placing as one of the chain’s top sellers.

I admit to a  bit of pique with those who pooh-pooh the closing of the nation’s second largest book chain. It strikes me as a bit self-serving: Borders did nothing for me, so why should I care? But there are those thousands who will be unemployed, thrust out into an unforgiving economy. And perhaps not just from Borders, but from the publishing houses as well. There are the soon-to-be-empty lease-spaces, black marks on their developments. The lucky owners will find quality tenants. Others will almost certainly sit empty; this economy seems short on risk-takers. There are the consumers: not everyone lives in a large metropolitan area with a multitude of choices, not everyone wants to (or may be able to) order books online.

Locally, I hold out a bit of hope–without any other chain bookstores nearby, and with a typically busy Borders, it seems possible that another chain may see an opportunity. I have also just learned of a newish independent the next town over, although I’ve yet to visit.

However. Borders IS having a bit of a sale on. And I don’t know when I might get to visit a large bookstore again. And I may have a bit of a weakness for bookstore sales. And I may have been restraining myself a bit too much earlier this year….

The following is representative of three trips. (Oops.)

  • The Essential Mediterranean Cookbook
  • The Essential Pasta Cookbook (full disclosure–I bought this a couple months ago on clearance, but it seemed a good time to share it with its companion)

  • Aesop – The Complete Fables
  • Anonymous – The Arabian Nights (vol. 1-3) – this is the 2010 translation by Malcolm and Ursula Lyons. I was actually looking for the Husain Haddawy translation, but this is what they had, and it was at least a new translation rather than the questionable Victorian translations. And if it has more stories than the “definitive” text, I guess I was just tempted by all those additional stories to read…
  • Louisa May Alcott – Little Men – for some reason I had both Little Women and Jo’s Boys, but not this one. The set is now complete.
  • George Eliot – Middlemarch – I’ve never read any Eliot, and this was one of the lovely Penguin cloth-bond editions.
  • Virgil – The Aeneid – Robert Fagles translation

  • Anonymous – Njal’s Saga – this and the following came up in the book list research I did early this year for Middle Ages texts. I still need to post that list/project, but now at least I have two more of the books on hand!
  • Anonymous – The Nibelungenlied
  • Sophocles – The Three Theban Plays: Antigone; Oedipus the King; Oedipus at Colonus – Robert Fagles translation
  • Elizabeth Gaskell – Sylvia’s Lovers – always glad to add another Gaskell, but still can’t seem to find Wives and Daughters
  • Mark Twain – Pudd’nhead Wilson
  • Mark Twain – The Adventures of Tom Sawyer
  • An Oresteia: Agamemnon by Aiskhylos; Elektra by Sophokles; Orestes by Euripides – Anne Carson translation, about which I have heard very good things

Err…I think I may have to go on a book buying ban. It’s a good thing that the store shelves were starting to get a little disorganized and that I didn’t find some of the other books I was looking for. Now if only I knew where to put these!

2 thoughts on “Musings on Times Past and Present”

  1. Oh, goodness. I was doing good avoiding Borders, but I might have to visit mine now. I love a clearnace sale!! You got some good ones. 🙂

    I’ve thought of the lay-offs too. So sad…

    1. Literature (that is, fiction other than the various genres) is up to 50% off now; history books (which include the Greek classics) are at 40%. The reductions may go higher, but I really need to NOT go back! I was slightly surprised that it seemed easier to find contemporary fiction yesterday than classics, but things were beginning to get a bit mixed, so that may be why.

      My brother actually has a friend that works at Borders. I believe he’s been fortunate enough to find a job already, but it’s a tough market for those looking. Here’s hoping some other bookstores open to fill the void and that the economy picks up soon!

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