During a recent swing along the West Coast, I discovered the toughest part of meeting the locals: that moment when they would ask, “Where are you from?” If the questioner had never been to Utah, the answer “Salt Lake City” would invariably draw a blank stare while the person tried to recall everything they thought they knew about Zion. It usually took at least a few minutes to try to convince them that Salt Lake City is, in fact, a politically blue island in a sea of red; that alcohol can indeed be consumed if a person first jumps through the requisite hoops; that minorities and gay people are actually allowed to live in (and sometimes even enjoy) what the local rappers (yes, we have them, too) refer to as “the 801.” Still, after all that, the questioners seemed wary, as if a Los Angeleno were trying to tell them the traffic wasn’t really all that bad, or a Manhattanite were suggesting there were affordable places to live on his island.
I thus received a happy surprise when buying books at Elliott Bay Book Company in Seattle. When the saleswoman asked me where I was from, and I warily answered the City of Salt, she responded with a smile and asked, “Have you been to Sam Weller’s?” She had never been to our town, but she knew we had a large, independent bookstore here. We therefore must be civilized to some degree and maybe even fun to invite to parties. That conversation, coupled with recent visits to City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco and Powell’s Books in Portland, reminded me of the significant role an independent bookstore can play in the way a city views itself, and the way it is viewed by outsiders.
Relax, this isn’t going to be yet another essay on the evils of Barnes & Noble and Amazon.com. That would be hypocritical, given how often I’ve taken advantage of their reliable and affordable services. But, while I wouldn’t want to go back to living in a world where I couldn’t buy books on the Internet, I also wouldn’t want to live in a city without a good independent bookstore. It would be naïve to ignore the laws of economics and call for the banning of the behemoths of bookselling, but we do need to remember just how much we gain by making sure we keep the indies around.
Each of the bookstores I visited on my trip had its own unique feel that reflected what was notable about the city in which it sat. City Lights, the favorite hangout of Ferlinghetti, Kerouac and the rest of the Beats, still channels the spirit of a certain era in an area noted for its rebellious streak. Elliott Bay in Seattle has an extensive section on ecology, as is appropriate for the Emerald City. Powell’s overwhelms with its sheer size and volume and is a tourist-attraction unto itself in a town that prides itself on the fact that an independent bookstore could be one of its main attractions.
In a similar vein, here in Utah’s capital city—where, beyond Sam Weller’s we’re lucky to also have the likes of King’s English, Ken Sanders, Red Light Books, Frost’s and Golden Braid Books, etc.—those who browse independent bookstores can usually find books from a wide variety of perspectives on Mormon history, theology and culture.
When readers are willing to go beyond the bestsellers and genre selections to an independent book store and venture into stacks marked “Muckracking” or “Commodity Aesthetics” (City Lights) or simply think it is worthwhile to browse through a place with over 4 million books (Powell’s) because they want to be surprised by what they might come across, it says that a city has a distinctive culture in a world being overtaken by homogenization. The fact that we Salt Lakers support our independent bookstores to the extent we do (and I’m not saying we couldn’t do a great deal better) says something positive about us.
I will be forever grateful for the long-since-departed Cosmic Aeroplane bookstore and record shop. When I was growing up in the Dee-Burger Clown era of Salt Lake City, Cosmic Aeroplane provided a perspective that I otherwise might not have known existed while living in a place that bore a stronger resemblance to the Utah imagined by the aforementioned questioners on my recent trip. Without the books and records available at Cosmic Aeroplane, I might never have known there was a world outside of Utah with different values and attitudes, and I might never have ventured there for a number of years before returning to Utah with a greater appreciation for its positive aspects.
Is it too much to say that an independent bookstore can change your life? Perhaps, but let’s not take any chances by letting these treasures die off. cw