Tuesday, August 16, 2011

My Sentiments Exactly

If you haven't figured it out yet, I grew up in Macon and a lot of my choices in life and my disposition have been formed in rebellion against that experience. There were aspects of Macon that I liked. It was relatively safe. Our synogogue was a warm, familial place. The Macon Mall was a nice space to kill a couple hours. Stratford Academy did a good job of preparing me academically for bigger challenges. All that said, I found the mentality of the place (and especially the social scene at my high school) to be backwards.

Macon's attitude was visible in a number of different respects - the local paper, the political scene, etc. - but the one that stands out in my memory is the fact that the only options for buying books in Macon were B. Dalton's and Waldenbooks at the Mall. For a metro area of around 250,000, this was something of a problem. To me, it signaled a place where people simply were not interested in ideas. For an adolescent with a burgeoning interest in World War II, this was a source of major frustration.

Throughout my childhood and adolescence, the oasis in this desert was Oxford Books in Atlanta. In contrast to the options available in Macon, Oxford Books seemed like a university unto itself, a huge store in the Peachtree Battle Shopping Center where I could get lost for hours. For me, a perfect summer weekend was going with my family to Atlanta, staying in a hotel, taking in a Braves game, eating dinner at Mick's, and spending an afternoon at Oxford Books. When I left Macon for college in 1993, my plan was to go to Michigan, then law school, then come to Atlanta to become a lawyer. Oxford Books helped to form my perception of Atlanta as a place where I would want to spend my professional life.

Likewise, my decision to go to Michigan was formed, at least in some small part, by spending the summer before my junior year of high school in Ann Arbor for debate camp (like band camp, only nerdier). Ann Arbor was exactly what I had imagined a college town to be and a major reason was the original Borders, located at the intersection of Liberty and State Streets. (The conservatives on campus joked that Liberty ends at State.) Borders was like Oxford Books, only with two levels instead of one and instead of having to drive eighty miles to see rows of shelves, I could walk from my dorm whenever I wanted to do so. In the same way that Oxford Books helped form my impression of Atlanta, Borders helped form my impression of Ann Arbor.*

* - It also helped that I didn't get into Dartmouth. My impression of Hanover, New Hampshire was formed when my Dad asked a random passer-by on the street for hotel options and the passer-by used the word "panoply" in response.

That's a long introduction for me to say that I heartily co-sign on John U. Bacon's post on his feelings regarding Borders' passing. As someone who believes that a love of reading is one of the most important values that a parent can instill in a child, it seems clear to me that a great bookstore makes its community better. It gives an outlet for readers to browse and then to learn about subjects that might have never crossed their minds before. As such, a proper bookstore is tool for self-improvement. (Now I sound like a Whig.) Without them, the world is a little darker.

I had a similar experience to Bacon in my last visit to the Borders on Ponce. I lived in the neighborhood for six years before Mrs. B&B and I started procreating and even now, it's not far from our house. Being a geek, I bought my groomsmen books on a Friday night at that Borders and had a great time scouring the shelves to find something that spoke to seven different personalities. I bought my first history of the Eastern Front - Alan Clark's Barbarossa - there and devoured the book on flights while the future Mrs. B&B and I were dating long distance. When we had kids, the children's area of the store quickly became one of our boys' favorite places (although our youngest is more interested in the toys and Mrs. B&B isn't always amused when I say "can I just go check out one book really quickly?" and then disappear for 15 minutes). Walking out the doors one final time was an emotional event. It's great to live in a world where a 12-year old in Macon can now order any book under the sun online at a reasonable price and have it arrive at his doorstep within a matter of days, but we're also losing something when the experience of aimlessly flipping through titles before picking out a tome on a previously-unconsidered subject becomes rarer and rarer.


peacedog said...

Not to defend Macon exactly, but it's metro area is not 250k and has never been. Bibb County is ~150k (a little over). Macon is still <100k, as it was when we were coming through (looking at census data). I think this is important because it stresses that Macon is sort of a weird town; it's significantly bigger than a small town but is otherwise a small southern town in behavior/makeup.

I must also point out that there was a good book resource well before Borders et al ever existed. It's called the library. Which is of no use whatsoever for potential browse & buy purposes of course, or for getting groomsmen gifts. Given that Macon was basically a small town, that probably meant a lot of "requesting" books and waiting for them to get sent, but I don't remember *too* much of that from my own youth. It probably helped then that my tastes were branching beyond Bloom/Cleary and into Fantasy. Not exactly plumbing the depths of history.

Did you never go the Library branch on Riverside near that Wendy's/Old Natalia's location? We hit that place up before every road trip (and we were doing it twice a year back then), and usually a few other times throughout the summer.

I think the lack of an Oxford Books like store when we were growing up is not really an indictment of the people in the area. It's just a reflection of the fact that Macon has small town sensibilities and Bibb County has a pretty spread out population. And book stores like that were hardly common. Maybe every 100k city in the midwest had a book store like that but I kinda doubt it.

A great bookstore is a wondrous thing to behold, though, and I certainly would have welcomed one back then. Waldenbooks was always fun to walk into, even though it wasn't cathedral like the way B&N/etc were.

Tommy said...

I spent the first nine years of my life in Macon and the next nine in Columbus. In terms of the childhood experience that each town affords, there was no difference. Both were sports-obsessed, anti-intellectual burgs that offered little to anyone whose professional aspirations were outside of the doctor/lawyer/banker/insurance/real estate realms. If you don't care for golf, they've got little to discuss with you. I co-sign with all of your complaints.

Me, I didn't give a shit about golf. Music was/is my primary obsession, followed closely by books. So your post reminded me of how I felt about Tower Records closing. A few years ago, I lived in Sacramento, a few blocks from the original Tower as it was heading for bankruptcy. It was terribly sad.

As an adolescent, Tower in Atlanta (and Wax N Facts) were my salvation from Turtles. Turtles sold music to people who really didn't care deeply about music. Turtles was about moving top 40 product, not facilitating discovery. That's where Tower and independent stores came in.

So, on the one hand, it's nice that a kid in Macon or Columbus has options online to download or stream an entire catalog of dizzyingly obscure music I never knew existed when I was 14. On the other, that will never replace the experience of walking into Amoeba Music in San Francisco or Tower when it was at its cavernous peak. Browsing the stacks, talking with real live people who were even more obsessed than I was, and sampling stuff I had no idea existed prior to walking in that store -- all of that was incredibly formative and validating for a geek like me.

Nate said...

Reading this post and the comments, there seems to be a real longing for the physical/perhaps social experience of going into the public realm to explore art and knowledge. (books and music) And while I feel this too, I do think this physical experience seems to make folks overlook the massive drawbacks of that process for finding books and music.

I too spent a ton of time in record stores and bookstores, particularly in college, but neither one was a social experience. More significantly, choosing a book and record was a matter of chance. Fortunately, I was in college during the tail end of the 1990's, so the internet allowed me to figure out what was worth taking a chance on in terms of more obscure music. But I still bought books that I turned out not to like.

Now that the Kindle allows me to download a significant chunk for free, I don't buy nearly as many books that I don't finish. Now that itunes lets you sample, I don't buy as many albums I don't like.

In favor of the physical experience, I would acknowledge that this supreme amount of control we now have over the art consumption process means there is a certain ennui present that wasn't there before. It's hard to express, but it's there, and it wasn't before.

But you know, I can lament that the World Cup doesn't mean as much to me now that I see English and Spanish soccer on a regular basis. Or I can relish the fact that on an otherwise unremarkable Wednesday night, I got to see a firecracker of a Barcelona-Madrid game. I try my best to focus on the what is present, not what's lost. I will now turn to my beside reading, where a stack of hideously translated Italian books on soccer tactics await- books which Borders would never have carried but I was able to find used on Amazon at very reasonable prices.

Flashlight Vagina said...

There's no doubt, the dude is absolutely just.