Thursday, August 11, 2011

Riots, Powder Kegs, and Time

Parents out of town and teenagers, left to their own devices, will have a party. It's like the reason for climbing Mt. Everest, or any big mountain, because it's there. Food, alcohol, plenty of space, and the parents are gone, so why not have a party. That's how I see the riots in England in the wake of a constable's death. It's a reason for a party or, in this case, a riot. A chance to break into shops and take whatever is wanted -- or needed.

In times of economic difficulty, especially in the heat of summer when tempers are short and the temperature is high, cities and towns are like powder kegs with fire burning nearby. One inch to close and BOOM! The constable's death was an excuse, not a reason, and the powder keg blew with stunning force. Shop windows were broken and contents damaged and stolen. Police were called out to keep order and one bookseller, whose store was in the heart of the rioting, kept his cool. He is reported to have said that if the rioters want to steal his books it was fine with him; they might learn something. That's the thing about books, they change a person's perspectives, feed a hunger for education, and provide a safe place to play and imagine a different life. It's why most authors write books, too, and, evidently, why booksellers get into the business of selling books to the public.

Borders, a bookstore that has been an institution, is now closed. The remaining stock will be parceled out to remainder shops or other bookstores to satisfy some of the chain's debts and the stores will remain empty, homes for spider, or will morph into something else: a dance club, a big box bargain or scratch and dent store, or even a getaway for drug addicts looking for a safe place to shoot up or smoke themselves into a different reality. Too bad they didn't get hooked on books and fall into worlds created just for getting away from reality and imagining a different life.

It wasn't in a Borders bookstore, although I spent many hours on Sundays when I was living in Texas, reading, sipping fruit juice, water, or hot chocolate, writing in a journal, or reading a book I picked from the shelves, but in a Waldenbooks bookstore in the Westgate mall in Columbus, Ohio where I got my first taste of worlds and adventures that would change my perspectives and my life. That was where, from across the store, I caught sight of a book cover with three people on it, grouped together like a force of nature. I was drawn to the Science Fiction and Fantasy aisle of the store and I picked up the book. It was Three Against the Witch World by Andre Norton. I was fascinated by the blurb I read and bought the book, taking it home with me. I haven't looked back at that moment for a very long time, but, last night while I was being interviewed for a biography about Andre, that moment came back to me as clear and sharp as it was the moment it happened nearly forty years ago. I was in full reverse mode, sharing the books and stories that I remember best, and talking about a friend who is now gone, a woman who became my mentor, and we met in a bookstore.

I received a Kindle a few months ago and I thoroughly enjoy being able to download books to read. The Kindle is light and convenient and the battery lasts quite a while, especially if I turn off the screensaver. I found that out the other day when I had to recharge it, thinking I had a lot more time on the battery. Even though I already own A Storm of Swords in paperback (part of a four-book boxed set), I decided to buy and download the book to my Kindle. Am I the reason Borders went out of business?

As self-centered as I can sometimes be, I know I'm not the reason Borders closed their doors. Bad business practices is what did Borders in, otherwise Waldenbooks, Barnes & Noble, and Books-a-Million would close their doors and call it quits. All of those bookstores, Borders included, sold more than books. They also sold CDs and DVDs of music, movies, and television shows, stationery, magazines, and pens, and some of them sold coffee and food. No one person or lack of people is responsible for Borders going under. It's like the riots in England, no one precipitating event caused people to slip their tethers and go berserk. It's a lot of different reasons catalyzed by a single event or series of events. Borders was a powder keg and someone lit a match too nearby, so it blew.

I don't mourn Borders too much. There are still bookstores with little cafes where I can sit on a Sunday sipping iced cappuccino and read a book on my Kindle or write in a journal, and there are plenty of small bookstores that will now get the book buyers and browsers who once frequented Borders.

These are volatile times financially, politically, and businesswise, powder kegs with fire sparking and burning nearby. There is no telling which powder keg will explode first. Anything is possible. There might be some good Samaritan who will put out the fire and put move the powder keg to a safe place -- or not. Nothing stays the same for long. Everything changes.

One thing never changes and that is the need and desire for knowledge and a place to get away from the cares and woes of the world, places that can be found in a book. Like the bookseller who said, "Let them break in and steal the books. They might learn something," I, too, am confident that what people want can be found between the pages of a book -- print and electronic -- wherein is contained the wisdom of the ages -- and quite a few silly and bad stories. Jump in, the reading's fine.


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