Thursday, March 15, 2012

A lifelong reader says goodbye to Maine bookstore chain Mr. Paperback

I walked through the sparse aisles with sadness Saturday, thinking of what used to be...and what soon would be no more.

Stacks once laden with books were now mostly empty, picked over by shoppers looking for going-out-of business bargains or those, like me, who came to purchase something out of tribute. And to say goodbye.

For those who work with words daily - reading, writing or editing them - the closing of a bookstore brings a tremendous sense of loss.

Especially an independent, locally owned, homey type of bookstore. One like Mr. Paperback.

If you haven't spent time living in Maine, you will not fully appreciate the significance of the planned April closing of the chain's 10 stores due to economic reasons and changing times. For those who have, however, the loss is real...and heartbreaking.

I checked out books regularly from my town library as a budding reader in the mid-1970s. But actually owning a book was special, a treasure I could keep and read as many times as I wanted.

I don't recall many bookstores operating in the Waterville, Maine area during my childhood and adolescence. Perhaps there were others...but I knew of only one. I entered Mr. Paperback's Elm Plaza, Waterville store as an 9-year-old with a pocket full of change, left with my first purchase and became hooked.

I returned to the store many times over the years with birthday or allowance money, eager to see the new arrivals and how many I could buy with the funds I had. A few dozen of those books - mostly sports-related - now line a bookshelf in my home, awaiting the reading eyes of a 9-year-old sports fanatic named Jack.

It's ironic that I visited the Waterville store in early February, a week before Jack's birthday, to buy him a present. It was just weeks before 120 employees were told they would lose their jobs...before the bad news hit the media and spread.

In some ways, it was as if time had stood still. The store was still in the same location in the outdoor shopping mall, its interior layout nearly the same as I remembered it from my youth.

The smells were the same too...newsprint and the scent of freshly printed books just removed from packaging. I was a child at Christmas wondering which gift I would pick up first.

It had been years since I had been in Mr. Paperback. Sadly, that is one of the factors leading to its demise.
Changes in shopping patterns and advancements in technology have had - and continue to have - a dramatic impact on the bookstore industry.

Books can be purchased and downloaded to e-readers easily and at a fraction of the cost of a hard copy. Online book ordering from large retailers - often with free shipping offers - also has played a part.

Neither option existed in the 1970s...or 80s...or most of the 90s for a child with a pocketful of change looking to buy a book. A child who could find a cozy corner in a local bookstore and read samples of books for hours until he found the "perfect one" for that particular shopping trip.

"You don't know what you have until it's gone" is a phrase used often but without a real contemplation of its meaning.

In this case, however, I do know.

The bookshelves are nearly empty and the tomb-like silence enveloping them is deafening.

2 comments:

  1. Re: It had been years since I had been in Mr. Paperback. Sadly, that is one of the factors leading to its demise.

    I blogged about this very thing several months ago. I feel guilty about buying my books online and helping to hasten the demise of one of my favorite retail institutions. But when I do buy an e-reader — and I expect that I will sooner rather than later — I will still prefer the feel of a cold, hard book spine in my hands. : )

    They paved paradise ...

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  2. I agree with your sentiments about e-readers, Diane. My wife and teen daughter love theirs but I can't get into reading a novel on an e-reader. I will always prefer the feel of a book in my hands, as I do with a daily newspaper - even though the news will never be as current as what's available online.

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