Brainiac On Banjo: It’s Good News Week!

It’s good news week! Doctors finding many ways of wrapping brains on metal trays to keep us from the heat! — “It’s Good News Week,” written by Jonathan King.

If you’re reading this right now, you are quite likely to be more literate than average, at least somewhat more intelligent, enjoy a wider range of interest and knowledge, and you have offensively deployed your enhanced memory much to the chagrin of your family and friends. That’s how demographics works. You probably go to the movies more often than the average jamoke, although you see a lot of heroic fantasy flicks, so Martin Scorsese thinks you’re a stupid piece of shit anyway.

If you are not reading this right now, what the fuck are you doing? Just looking at the pictures? Scoping out egoboo? C’mon — blog writers work hard to entertain and/or educate you. Well, at least some of them do. But digression is just another word for padding, so I’ll get to the point:

I have good news for you!

There has been a significant upturn in the number of American bookstores. You young’uns probably heard us geriatrics talk about them around the cracker barrel at Pa Kent’s General Store. Bookstores were these places where humans would walk in, gaze at thousands of bound volumes of words that combine to tell stories and/or teach us something, and you didn’t even have to find the right USB cord.

Then Amazon came along. They started out as an inexpensive online bookstore; now they sell typically overpriced books and food and drugs and body replacement parts. Bookstores started closing all over the place.

Amazon didn’t help, but they were not the only problem. Big boxes got bigger, and they used a lot of space to display calendars, CDs, DVDs and Edison cylinder recordings, and a massive tonnage of chachkas for people who don’t want to think too hard. Then people started getting their music and movies off of computers, so they stopped buying “prerecorded” media. Calendars? Well, after a while those big-ass photos of cute puppies wears thin. I’d like to say the dumb chachkas have passed their prime, but I never underestimate the public’s appetite for kitsch.

The big box stores did not learn how to compete and all that rented real estate that used to display the aforementioned crap turned into dust warehouses. Borders and B. Daltons went blooie, while Books-A-Million returned to the Dewey Decimal System. Barnes & Noble closed down enough turf to build a couple airports, and many smaller and more localized chains starting coughing up blood.

We, the book buying public, started to fear that our beloved Mom ’n’ Pop independent booksellers would suffer the same fate. But over time, we realized that most weren’t hit very hard and, as Amazon continued to expand their inventory of not-books, their presence began to inflate once again — particularly those with specific themes such as women’s history, kids books, Black history, and LGBTQIA subjects, to name but a few.

And, now, we’re beginning to see a substantial return of the larger-but-not-as-large-as-before big boxes, starting with the chain survivor Barnes & Noble. They’re opening fifty new locations in 2024 alone after having opened some thirty new joints last year. CEO James Daunt told CNBC said these stores will have greater autonomy than corporate had previously shared while looking to provide a “more intimate experience.” Yeah. Well, if you can’t beat them, join them. Personally, I wouldn’t mind returning to my wandering book-browsing ways. I can use the exercise.

And here’s the really cool part. Well, for me, at least.

My homies back in Chicago are morphing a beautiful old bank that, subsequently, had a life as a Walgreens. Yup, they sold their prescriptions in the bank’s vault. Now it’s turning into one of the new B&Ns. It’s in the lovely, expensive and über-trendy Wicker Park neighborhood, right where one would expect it to be.

I’ve taken the liberty of posting photos of the venue when it was a Walgreens. I wonder what they’re going to put in that vault area — I don’t think they’re going to sell rare maps or illuminated manuscripts but I’m pretty certain they won’t be using this space to warehouse CDs, DVDs and cheeky chachkas.

I don’t see this new effort pushing out a lot of Mom ’n’ Pop bookstores, at least not those that are well-managed and where their landlords don’t triple the rent overnight. In fact, I know from personal experience (which I will not share at this time) that viable bookstores encourage book reading and bringing your kids to such a joint might encourage their sense of wonder.

Or, maybe, it’s just another retro fad. Vinyl records have had their resurgence; who knows, maybe 8-tracks will be next. But, as the saying goes, reading truly is fundamental, and just about anything that encourages this life-saving activity will make Earth a more livable place.

One thought on “Brainiac On Banjo: It’s Good News Week!

  1. Chicago had so many good bookstores back when I was living there. Same for comic shops. Man, do I ever miss those days.

    Sometime around 1989 or 1990, I went into an indoor mall (also goners) and walked into a B. Dalton or Waldenbooks, I don’t remember which one it was, but the scent of fresh paper and new books was always a welcome experience. I left with a small paperback, a collected anthology of Robert Frost poems. For some reason, I’ve never forgotten that day.

    I discovered Frost through Carl Potts and Jim Lee’s first three-parter on the Punisher War Journal. Microchip is shown reading a book of Frost poems as Frank Castle eats a sandwich while flying a kite in Central Park. Both men were relaxed. Frost’s most famous poems are quoted at the end of each comic. So that’s how I learned about him.

    Crown Books had also been around since I was a kid and I was there with my father or aunt a lot. I loved that place. There was one location not far from my house, but eventually, they all went under.

    But Barnes & Noble is still going on strong. If vinyl records could make a strong comeback, then so can bookstores. I have faith in the younger generations. And yeah, I also believe that reading books is a life-saving activity that makes Earth a more livable place.