Culture

The Importance of Indie Bookstores Today, Tomorrow, and Always

Editor's Note:

Louise Miller is the author of The City Baker’s Guide to Country Living. She is a pastry chef who lives, writes, and bakes in Boston, MA. The Late Bloomers’ Club is her second novel.

I was lucky to have been raised by a father who brought me to a bookstore every Saturday and let me buy books, with one condition: that they be stories, not jokey books like The Preppy Handbook or Fer Shur! How to Be a Valley Girl-Totally!, which I occasionally tried to sneak into the pile. But the stores in our suburbs were chain stores. It wasn’t until I was a teenager and allowed to take the subway into Boston after school that I discovered the indie bookstores that I would eventually call mine.

One of my favorite places to hang out as a teen was Harvard Square, where you could buy combat boots and Rastafarian knit hats and nag champa incense, where we admired the punk rock kids who sat in “the pit” by the train station, wearing leather jackets and ripped tights, looking tough. That was where I discovered my first indie, Harvard Book Store. It was there that I purchased my first book of poetry, Mary Oliver’s American Primitive, which my high school sociology teacher had recommended. Oliver became my favorite poet. I try to read her every morning before I set off into the day.

I first went to The Trident Bookstore and Café to drink coffee and smoke cigarettes and try and look bohemian. It was there that I bought my first Buddhist book, a slim volume called Every Day Zen by a nun named Joko Beck. Beck’s work led to books by other teachers —Thich Naht Hahn, Jon Kabat Zinn, Pema Chodron —which led to years of Buddhist study, which led to a decades-long meditation practice, which eventually led to the taking of two sets of Buddhist vows.

And then there was Brookline Booksmith. I was first introduced to Booksmith by a friend I deeply admired, who pressed a copy of Raymond Carver’s Where I’m Calling From into my hands and insisted that I buy it. It was love at first short story. I had never read anything like Carver before. I returned to Booksmith again and again, in search of new voices. On the “staff recommends’ shelf and on the front tables I discovered Barbara Kingsolver’s The Bean Trees, Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera, Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City series, Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek — books that changed who I was as a reader. Books that shaped who I became as a person. Books that opened up the world to me in ways I never would have imagined without them. Booksmith was the place where I found Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones, back when being a writer felt like a lofty dream. I would linger in the fiction aisle by the M’s and locate the spot where my book would be nestled if I ever actually wrote and published one. Over the years, Booksmith became my bookstore. It where I go when I need cheering up or when I feel like celebrating. It feels like the home of someone who loves me, who understands how important stories are, and who knows exactly what I need.

When I published my first novel, The City Baker’s Guide to Country Living, I learned firsthand the many ways that indie bookstores help books and authors, and my relationship with them deepened. The booksellers at the indies are passionate readers. Their mission is to place books into the hands of readers who will love them. Through handselling books, writing reviews in their newsletters, and celebrating books they love on social media, they are the matchmakers of the book world. Indie bookstores invite unknown authors to have events and give them a chance to share their work with their communities — opportunities that chain stores reserve for bestselling authors. The indies play a critical role in giving readers the opportunity to discover new voices and helping new authors find their audience.

Becoming an author has been thrilling — truly a dream come true. But it hasn’t changed the feeling I get when I walk into an indie bookstore. I step across the threshold and breathe in the clean scent of paper. I scan the tables and shelves, taking in the lay of the land. I peruse the new release table to see what has come in, and look to see what the staff is recommending. I’m in good hands. I am filled with a feeling of hope, and ready to discover something new.