If you're the kind of person who loves, books and is concerned, or even a little interested in, the plight of independent bookstores, please get yourself a copy of Paperback Dreams immediately. Paperback Dreams is a one-hour PBS documentary about the history of independent bookselling in America as seen through the experience of Cody's Books and Kepler's Books, two giants of the field. Filmed over the last four years, director Alex Backstead and his crew captured Kepler's closing in 2005 after 50 years in business only to be saved by an outpouring of funds and community support.
Cody's was not so lucky. After the 2006 closing their flagship store in Berkeley (which served as not only a field hospital for injured protesters in the 1960s but was firebombed in 1989 after agreeing to display Salman Rushdie's novel The Satantic Verses), the company struggled to stay afloat with a new store in downtown in San Francisco and a second on the tony 4th street in Berkeley. San Francisco's branch never caught on and closed in 2007. After trying a move to a smaller space in Berkeley, Cody's last store closed in 2008, ending its 52-year history of bookselling.
The filmmakers were there to capture it all, right down to the last customer walking out the door at Cody's and owner Andy Ross, pulling labels off empty shelves. That part was too hard for me to watch.
The rest of the film? Just gorgeous. Paperback Dreams is the most levelheaded, thoughtful conversation I've ever witnessed about independent bookstores. Which is saying a lot. Its a business prone to soul-stirring passion and infuriating myopia, often at the same time and in equal doses. Discussion of why independents close can and often does devolve into hysteria and name calling, blaming "the internet", "big chains", "kids today", and "society" with all the nuance of kicking over a trash can then moaning about the mess on the sidewalk.
I was lucky to see the film at The Booksmith, my neighborhood literary merchant. For the past 2 years, Bthe store has been owned by Praveen Madan and Christin Evans, a husband and wife team of former Silicon Valley management consultants thrilled by the challenge of inventing "the independent bookstore of the 21st century." Praveen and Kristin partook in Q & A, afterword, outlining the challenges ahead (a lousy economy, fewer funds for author tours, this thing called the Kindle) but offering solutions instead of complaints. At one point Praveen leaned forward and leveled with his audience of neighbors and friends.
Bookselling must first work as a business, he said. Because it can't work as anything else until it works economically.
Logic over theatrics! "What works" in addition to "what feels good." I felt lucky to be there.
So this is Kevin recommending Paperback Dreams like I'd recommend cold water on a hot day: Refreshing, simple and true. It reminded me that the people who truly love bookstores, with all of themselves, bring but their hearts and their useful minds to the enterprise.
Available on DVD for $20. Makes a great holiday gift. And if you're unsure if you could see a whole movie about bookselling, I felt the same way about a movie featuring a font. Which I thought was rediculously awesome.