Last year, I drove my mother from Byram to the Wells Fargo in Old Greenwich, taking the Post Road because she dislikes I-95. Along the way, I thought about the bookstores that once dotted the areas through which we passed.
There were many. Remember Just Books, on West Putnam Avenue, run by Warren Cassell? And, nearby, there were TWO stores opposite each other on Greenwich Avenue itself: Waldenbooks (replaced by a Borders Express) and the more spacious and grand Brentano’s.
Diane’s Books on Grigg Street is all that remains of the brick-and-mortar bookstores on the Avenue.
In Old Greenwich, by the elementary school in the ’90s, there was also a small bookshop with crisp shelves that quickly disappeared. Where IMAGES now stands, for a brief time in 1993, there was—mirabile dictu!—a used bookstore as well, with a friendly owner and a quizzical cat. Just around the corner nearby stood Jenny Lawton’s Just Books, Too, which, sadly, closed its doors.
The journey that day reminded me of John Cheever’s famous story, “The Swimmer,” which is, among other things, about the passage of time in suburbia, and confronting the unrecoverable. Read Christopher Woodward’s In Ruins: A Journey Through History, Art, and Literature for a rumination on the tale specifically, and the theme in general.
A cadre of independent FC bookstores still exists, but most of us visit Amazon.com (as do I) for our tomes. It’s convenient, easy, and honestly, cheaper: Usually, you don’t pay for shipping, you barely have to move, and if you get an e-book—which is like buying air, technically—you pay very little for a lot of portable material.
The reason, however, people patronize local bookstores is simple: neighborhoods cherish them because of the personal touch.
The seating area in the back of Darien's Barrett Bookstore
"It's all about service," says Susan Rein, co-owner of New Canaan's Elm Street Books. "The community wants a bookstore. People who come in are people who read all the time."
Staff that enjoy reading books (and don’t just know where to put them on shelves) is often what larger chains lack. It isn’t just about quantity and availability, but relationships.
“It’s not just the books,” according to Helene Kurtz, owner of Westport’s Age of Reason, which has stocked children’s books, among other great kids’ items, for decades. “People come back because we care, and we read, and we tell them. And, I think they trust us.”
Independent booksellers can be completely honest in their opinions, and unafraid to tell customers what’s good and what isn’t. A book isn’t a “unit,” which is how retail chains tend to class them. Books are books, as they should be.
Personally, I found the policies of extinct chains such as Waldenbooks and Borders to be restrictive and foolhardy (I worked for them in the ’90s). There was zero incentive to induce people to buy outside of the corporate front list; most booksellers there knew little about the substance of books; and there was little push to sell what local customers were interested in, apart from the New York Times Best Sellers list. This isn’t the case at indies such as Elm Street Books.
“Our booksellers are brutal, and will tell customers if they liked a book or not,” Rein says. “We stock from all kinds of best sellers lists—and our shop generates all kinds of conversations.”
Interestingly, the practical reason behind some indies’ survival lies in being the best at a particular niche, such as children’s titles, while covering all the other elements as well. Diane’s, in Greenwich, has a huge inventory of “family books,” far larger than that of any superstore, and can draw big-name authors for events, as do most of the other local indies. The shop also offers fantastic services (gift wagons, for example), and its delightful location, in a nook on Grigg Street just off Greenwich Avenue, keeps it as a major draw.
In a similar way, Darien’s Barrett Bookstore offers a community vibe with the same sort of expert service you would expect from people who love to read. Like Elm Street Books, Sheila Daley’s fine staff also works with local, self-published authors, and has possibly the most charming seating area I’ve seen.
Charm, honestly, is an intangible that keeps indies afloat. After all, if you happen to stop by the train at the Noroton Heights station, isn’t there something comforting in the idea of popping right into a delightful bookshop nearby? It seems like that sort of community life is part of a world that’s in danger of disappearing.
The feeling’s the same when I drive or walk through Ridgefield, for example. Books on the Common looks like what a bookstore should: inviting, homey, and absolutely integrated with (and integral to) the community surrounding it.
When I enter these bookstores, I don’t think that, in the face of the publishing’s burgeoning digital present, they will winnow away.
Quite the contrary: they’ll thrive.
“I am not a Kindle fan,” Kurtz says. “I love the smell of books. What’s most important here is that we don’t like to stock junk in our store. It’s all about people who care about things.”
And if you walk into Rein’s shop in New Canaan, or into Diane’s, know that a book you don’t see on the shelf can be ordered and in your hands by the next day, in most cases.
“When customers come in,” she says, “We’ll do anything to get a book in the store for them.”
So while you’ll be able to acquire your title(s) from Barnes & Noble or Amazon.com efficiently from your phone or iPad, you won’t receive that kind of enthusiasm when clicking the “Place Order” button you press to have them delivered.
But if you head to your neighborhood bookstore, you’ll be supporting your local community, meeting fellow booklovers, and starting a conversation.
Age of Reason: 19 Post Road, Westport, (203) 226-8199
Barrett Bookstore: 314 Heights Road, Darien, (203) 655-2712
Books on the Common: 404 Main Street, Ridgefield, (203) 431-9100
Diane's Books: 8A Grigg Street, Greenwich, (203) 869-1515
Elm Street Books: 35 Elm Street, New Canaan, (203) 966-4545
April is National Poetry Month, so…a simple plea: Read some verse! Visit the POETRY Foundation to enjoy some, to get more information, links and other recommendations.
David Podgurski is a writer and editor who has lived in Fairfield County his entire life. A former books columnist for The Stamford Advocate and Greenwich Time newspapers. Feel free to email David.