Micawber, Murder Ink, and the death of the written word

I love bookstores. I spent most of high school wandering between the used book store and comic book store on 92nd street and the Barnes and Noble ten blocks down, and while the first two got way more of my pitiful reserves of cash, all three had an equal claim on my heart.

The New York Times mourned the closing of Micawber Books in Princeton yesterday, third in a series of eulogies to independent bookstores (The first two were Murder Ink and Coliseum Books). So why aren’t I mourning?

Micawber Books opened in 1981, when I was three years old. It lies on Nassau Street directly on my route home from school every day. But the bookstore of my childhood, the one that pulls at my heartstrings, is the more banal University bookstore, the one where I went every day to pore eagerly over YA thrillers and Greek legends, counting out my tiny allowance and trying to decide which of all these riches I should spend my money on. The one where I saw my first Punch and Judy puppet show. My sanctuary. I went to Micawber books only once in all those years. The children’s books were in a raised little nook next to the cashier’s desk that made me feel scrutinized and embarrassed to be caught in the kiddie section, and the long, thin books were arranged spine-out, making the titles uninviting and hard to read. The grown-up books, sectioned off in tightly-packed, narrow alcoves, were equally off-putting. You had to know what you wanted before you came in, find the section, and do your business quickly, before your eyes glazed, your hackles raised, or your feet began to ache. The store only became more inviting after it had to start competing with the commercial booksellers, making space for couches and showing some books face-front to catch the eye.

Similarly, Murder Ink, the couple of times I went in there, was a good place to look for odd first edition mystery paperbacks. The selection wasn’t really comprehensive, there was nowhere to sit, and I just felt out of place there despite living three blocks away. The stores where I spend my time and my money are not all commercial, but they are all places where I feel comfortable, can chat with the salespeople, curl up and think for a bit, and feel invited to ask them to order something if I don’t see it on the shelves: Barnes and Noble, The Strand, and Forbidden Planet in New York, and The Raven, Modern Myths and the late, lamented Space-Crime Continuum in Northampton.

Maybe these closing bookstores aren’t signs of the death of the written word. Maybe they’re just bookstores that didn’t connect well with customers who very much want to read and buy.

Any of you Princeton expats who remember Micawber want to disagree with my blurry childhood impressions? New Yorkers in exile who get something I don’t?


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