The Writing on the Wall

The plight of the bookstore

by Will Vunderink, editor; illustration by Lilly Turner, guest artist

During the summer of 2005, after my junior year of high school, I began working at a bookstore called Good Yarns in my hometown of Hastings on Hudson, New York. The store had been around for almost thirty years and smelled strongly of dust and old, yellowing books. I started the day a new owner took over. In the past, Good Yarns (pun oh so intended) had also sold yarn; the multi-colored spools covering one wall were among the first things to go under the new ownership. During the two years I worked there, our stock of books expanded by a huge degree, we re-arranged the whole store, and a large back office was devoted to online business and filled floor-to-ceiling with books. We inventoried everything in the store and put it all into a new computer system, had authors give readings, and took special orders for customers.

I survived the midnight onslaught that was the release of the sixth Harry Potter book. I worked more than usual pre-Christmas, when we were extremely busy and it was nerve-wracking. I worked alone most Sundays, sometimes seeing only five customers between 11 a.m. and 5 p.m. and spending the day dusting and Windexing, organizing and re-organizing. Even in a town like mine, a haven for young creative types—writers, musicians, artists—who’ve fled New York City to have kids in a safe, quiet place with good schools, the bookstore couldn’t make a profit. It had closed by the time I came home for summer vacation after my freshman year at CC. 

The job made me startlingly aware of the publishing industry’s troubles and the difficulties of keeping bookstores alive. And, perhaps because of their decline, I began to value the idea of The Bookstore so much—the tiny hole-in-the-wall used store on a quiet, hidden street or the shiny and hip new bookstore you might see in the middle of a city block. In the absence of the first two, you might even accept a Borders or Barnes & Noble, because they’re generally reliable. No matter which store you choose, each is a place you visit to snoop around for a new author, an obscure one, or an essential one, and hopefully come away with what you were looking for, or, better still, something you’ve never heard of and discover by chance. There’s something seductive and almost illicit-feeling about all that slinking around the stacks. It’s an expensive habit, but a profoundly worthwhile one. 

I’ve become familiar with the bookstores around my hometown in New York, but until recently I knew next to nothing about the literary scene and readership in Colorado Springs. Poor Richard’s bookstore, as the bastion of literature in the downtown area, seemed like the place to go to find out about the local scene. As bookstores shut down all across the country, Poor Richard’s appears to be thriving; there are always people in the store browsing the shelves, reading and drinking coffee at the tables, and buying books. I went downtown recently to speak to  general manager Kelly Patterson about the store, its clientele, literacy in America, recent trends in the publishing industry, and, of course, great bookstores. 

Will Vunderink: How long have you worked at Poor Richard’s?

Kelly Patterson: I’ve been here about thirteen, fourteen years, and I’m the general manager here. I owned my own bookstore in Dallas and sold that and moved up here. 

WV: How have you noticed the business changing over the years, if you’ve noticed any changes at all?

KP: Oh yeah, some major changes for a used bookstore, especially. Mostly because the internet has changed the nature of bookstores. Just about anybody can go to a garage sale, buy a few books, and open up their own little bookstore at home, you know, on the internet. And it really affects our business; it affects how we buy and how we price and all those kinds of things. So it’s a huge impact from the internet. How long have you been here?

WV: This is my third year at CC.

KP: Well, you probably remember that there used to be four or five really good bookstores downtown, and now we’re the only one left. A part of that is because of the internet.

WV: I wrote an article last year about the music industry, and . . .

KP: Same thing.

WV: Yeah, the exact same thing happened. It’s interesting how the two industries are so parallel in that respect, at least. Back in New York one of the biggest music stores in the world went out of business last year in the middle of Times Square  . . . It just couldn’t support itself anymore.

KP: What was the cause of that?

WV: Because of the internet, et cetera. And I know that a lot of the bigger bookstores—Borders, Barnes & Noble—are having issues as well, and it’s the same sort of deal.

KP: Yeah.

WV: So, do you have a favorite book or favorite author?

KP: Oh, you know, it would be really difficult for me to pick out one. I read as much non-fiction or perhaps even more non-fiction than I do fiction; usually your favorite authors are more fiction than they are non-fiction. But, if people ask me, “Okay, if you’re on a desert island what book would you take with you?” I think I would take The Complete Works of Shakespeare, because I just love the language.

WV: When you were growing up, what books had a big effect on you?

KP: Well, funny, when I was growing up I didn’t read a lot. I was a jock—I did a lot of athletics. Although I did well in school, my main interest in school was really science and mathematics, and that’s where I kind of excelled, so I wasn’t a big reader when I was growing up. When I went into the service, I told myself—this was back in the sixties—I told myself, “What I’m gonna do is read, see if I can’t read more.” Herman Hesse was one who had an impact on me. But it was only after I turned twenty, because I got my draft notice on my twentieth birthday.

WV: Wow.

KP: But I made a point to try to read more when I was older, and then when I went back to college after the service, my interests had changed and I was no longer interested in mathematics, more the humanities, so my major became comparative literature. 

WV: Do you see a high demand for any genres or authors in particular at this store?

KP: Well, young people like . . . well, the women like vampires. I cannot understand the fascination with that subject in young women. But men like the war novels. We each have our own separate kind of fascinations. Chuck Palahniuk is another—his writing is full of sex and violence. But those kinds of authors—Chuck Palahniuk, the Twilight series, and Laurel Hamilton, and all those people who write about vampires—those are authors or stories that, for some reason, young people seem to gravitate towards. A few years ago it was all about serial killers, now it’s about vampires.

WV: Given our location here in Colorado Springs, with the Air Force Academy, Fort Carson, Focus on the Family, et cetera—it’s a very politicized area. Do you think that has an effect on the book-buying here?

KP: I think because we’re known as a sort of liberal enclave, people who are liberal in this conservative town will come to this store. We also get conservative people; I was asked to speak at Focus on the Family last summer and found it interesting that they would ask me to do that, knowing that we’re pretty liberal in our spectrum over here, in our ideologies. I even asked them when I was there . . . I was in a panel discussion, speaking to Christian writers, editors and publishers, and the first thing I said was, “I find it interesting that you guys would ask a representative of Poor Richard’s to speak, to come here.” And they were very gracious towards me, and they said they liked coming into our store, so we do get conservative people coming in too. But I think we’re known as a kind of liberal enclave, and people come to us for that reason. Every once in a while I’ll get a conservative person in here who gets angry at what we have in here, especially when Bush was in office. A few people got angry at us for some of the things we were selling. They lost the concept of free speech. But yeah, I think Richard [Skorman, the store’s owner] has been around for a long time so our bookstore is maybe a little different from the other bookstores around here because of Richard’s influence in the community.

WV: Does Poor Richard’s do any business online or is it all in-store?

KP: Well, we do very little—we’re beginning to sell some of our collectibles online, but we’re kind of old-fashioned in many respects. We don’t have our stock on the computer, we don’t have a whole lot of books online, and so we still kind of do it old-school. I know that the guy, Roy, who ran the Book Broker over here by Acacia Park, had to move from that location because they were remodeling and he got a warehouse over here off of Garden of the Gods and it was all online, but he eventually went out of business. Even to do that is difficult. My own feeling on things is that eventually bookstores will disappear, and also two-dimensional art on the wall—those two art forms I think will disappear. Maybe not in my lifetime, but when they get a good electronic book, and it’s something that people feel comfortable reading, you may see the slow demise of bookstores. You’re seeing it now, actually. 

WV: I was going to ask you about the Kindle; I’ve never actually seen one in person—what do you think of it?

KP: I haven’t seen one either. I almost avoid [them], ‘cause I don’t want to see the writing on the wall. I hear people say that they read books on their iPhone, or whatever. I wonder, “How the hell do they do that?” All the bookstores, all the publishers, all the printing industry is really in—because of technology, it’s really in dire straits. Young people, the younger generations that are coming up, I think one of the reasons they’ll read Chuck P. and not Steinbeck or Dostoyevsky is because Chuck P. is a very quick, very modern writer; you don’t get a whole lot of character development, and so—those are the ones who are actually reading; a lot of the younger people aren’t reading, so that’s another thing that looks bad for the future of bookstores. There’s a book out by Susan Jacoby, it’s the history of the anti-intellectual bias in America, that’s the emphasis, and she talks about the reading trends—the lack of reading trends—and the future of reading, and it’s not a rosy picture. 

WV: Besides your own bookstore, what’s the best bookstore you’ve ever been to?

KP: There was a bookstore in Seattle I was in—the Left Bank, I think it was called—that I really liked. I heard it’s no longer in business, though. There is one bookstore that I’ve always wanted to go to and have yet to go, but when I know people are going to San Francisco I get them to get me T-shirts—I’ve got two or three T-shirts from there. It’s the City Lights bookstore in San Francisco. I guess the Tattered Cover in Denver is a pretty good one, yeah, that’s a good bookstore. And years ago, back in the early seventies, there was a bookstore in Dallas called Half-Price Bookstores, they were used bookstores, books from the floor to the ceiling, and it was like a little cave . . . a little reading cave you’d walk into. But they’ve done so well and expanded so much that they’re all over Texas, they’re the largest bookstore in Texas now. I know they took over a Safeway once and put a bookstore in there, so they’ve expanded quite a bit.

WV: That’s impressive.

KP: Yeah. Years ago I used to be able to go into their warehouse and—I had friends who used to work there—pick out about seven or eight boxes of books that I’d put in my car, and then I’d pick out the ones I really wanted to read and I’d take the rest to other used bookstores in town and get trade value for them, so I had a little game going there. I’ve been to a lot of bookstores in my life, but I find I usually went into used bookstores rather than new bookstores, because for me it was the serendipitous value of walking into a bookstore and not really knowing what you wanted and discovering something, or trying to find a book that’s been out of print, and . . . There was an anthology of poetry that was out of print and I looked for it for years, and one day I walked into this used bookstore and there it was. That was an exciting moment.

WV: Absolutely. I wanted to ask if you’ve read Sarah Palin’s autobiography . . .

KP: From what I can tell from the interviews I’ve seen, she’s really talking badly about Republicans.

WV: Yeah, I’ve heard she bashes the McCain campaign.

KP: Oh, yeah, and I’m a little bit angry about McCain not fighting back on that. Her book’s called Going Rogue; there’s a book out by some writers from The Nation called Going Rouge and it’s about Palin. That one I want to read. The other one not so much. 

WV: Well, if anything, Palin’s book could help the industry at the end of the year. 

KP: Yeah, there will be books that people will—you know, like the Harry Potter books—that will hopefully get people’s interest. Now, I was a little bit different, I didn’t grow up in an intellectual family so much, and we didn’t sit around talking about issues or ideas so much. But it was innate in me, and it was something that came out later in life. But you have to have a kind of a history, you have to grow up with that in your family, I think, to be a lifelong reader. So, yeah—Going Rouge.

WV: Going Rouge. 

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