OPINION: Independent bookstores can be safe havens for everyone


Hailey Stessman

Photo courtesy of Hailey Stessman/The Gateway

Oh, where do I even begin to describe the relationship I have with my books.

The connection one has with a book can be very personal. Some people prefer the reliability of a hardcover while others love the flexibility of a paperback. Some mindlessly leave their books about the house while others have them neatly stacked on a shelf. Dog-earing or no dog-earing? Notes or no notes?

The ideal reading experience for me starts by selecting the perfect paperback, one that has already seen the loved wear and tear of another individual who previously enjoyed the story written between the two covers. I’m talking bent corners, a name scrawled on the inside cover, maybe a small letter to their loved one. I then softly flip the pages to see how the book physically feels in my hands. Are the pages a weird texture or are they the perfect combination of delicateness and thickness? What does the book smell like? (Yes, I invite you, smell your book.) What passages are underlined, circled or highlighted? Extra points if there are any leftover notes in the margins from the prior owner. Once I have grazed over every different copy or edition, I perform the final act.

I must always, without fail, break the spine of the book before paying.

Now, you may be thinking, “You can’t just walk into Barnes and Noble and break the spine of any of their new books.”

And you’re right. It would be disrespectful and rude to damage any of the books perfectly placed upon their shelves. I have a certain responsibility to uphold as a customer.  (This is not an invitation to hatefully vandalize any book in your sight.)

But, there is one magical place where that kind of affection toward a book is acceptable.

And so, I ask you, “When was the last time you stepped foot into an independent bookstore? When was the last time you did a quick lap around the books when making a trip to the thrift store?”

If you’re like me, independent bookstores are the gateway to falling in love with reading all over again.

As a child, reading was my beloved pastime. My nose would always be stuck in a book—my eyes would be following each and every word as if that would be the last book I would ever get to read in my lifetime. You could catch me reading at dinner, in between classes, in the car, before bed and the second I woke up in the morning. English class was my favorite subject all throughout my academic career. I could never contain my excitement when learning what novel we would be reading next. I would beg my mom or dad to drive me to Jackson Street Booksellers in the Old Market to see if I could find a battered-up copy that I could use for class.

Nothing beats the exhilaration of underlining a sentence another person has underlined as well.

But as the years have passed – I am now a college student in my second year of study – my love for reading as an outside source of enjoyment and entertainment has slowly dwindled.

Many people ask me, “Well, aren’t you an English major? Don’t you read plenty of books during school?”

And while that may be correct, my book assignments are usually read amidst a period of deadlines, commitments and a sense of overall chaos. I have constantly felt as though I could never truly enjoy the book I was reading for class. There would be a looming pressure of expectations I had to reach with my analyzations or conclusions about the text that I had to share with the class. Rather than being excited as I once was as a child, I found myself making it a task or chore to go to large corporately owned bookstore that I knew would have a new copy for my class. Gone were the days where I could marvel within the stacks and stacks of used books that contained so many hidden treasures for as long as I wanted to. My trips downtown to Jackson Street Booksellers or Half Price Book decreased drastically.

While I still support larger bookstores with my time and money, as I believe in the access to physical books, there’s something special about stepping foot into a small bookstore tucked away on the side of the street. It’s as if the towers of books are embracing you in a warm hug. You can get a look into the individual’s mind that once held the very book you are holding with the anecdotes scribbled in the margin or the rings of coffee stains printed on several pages. Independent bookstores keep the art of literature and reading on a more intimate and personal level. It provides lovers of books with a chance to appreciate the messy beauty of becoming close with a certain narrative or character.

This year, I decided to make an effort to make monthly trips to my favorite independent bookstores around town and find the joy in reading for myself again. I want to meander through the maze of novels without a specific goal in mind. I want to pick up a title I have never heard of and jump in blindly. I want to feel like a child again and read into the wee hours of the morning. Not for grades, not for a degree, not for a GPA. But for myself.

So, I encourage you to give some love to your independent bookstores who work daily to provide the community with the opportunity to explore the amazing world of literature. They need us just like we need them.