Monday, October 12, 2009

Books of Burlington

Ben and Jerry's or Books and Jerry's?

The once quiet town of Burlington, Vermont is where the Ben and Jerry's ice cream empire has its roots. In fact, as far as I know, its offices are still located in South Burlington. I say "once quiet" town, because my memories of good old Burlington from a dozen years ago, when I last had the pleasant opportunity to visit this lovely locale, were of a not-so-noisy or active place. On my visit this summer, though, the place was not just in full bloom, but buzzing like a hot weather fan on hi-speed. People were all about, in this street corner or that stoop; buskers were busking, families were nibbling on sandwiches on street-side cafes, and college kids were washing down greasy burgers with pints of ale and other jolly drinks. Of course, I'd hoped to spend more time in Burlington, to get a real sense of the place, a lay of the land, and maybe even catch a museum or historical society visit or two. Unfortunately, the sun in the sky was slowly moving toward the horizon, and I had to truck on back south before dark.

Now this is not the first time I've captured the image of a book truck, but I thought that this book truck, belonging to the Fletcher Free Library of Burlington, was a fine example of bibliotravel (first image above), one replete with pirates and all the best (fictional, or not) characters a child's imagination could garner. I parked near the library, and set off to find some lunch. I spotted the bookmobile and then this fine mystically-entranced book store called "Spirit Dancer Books...," but it wasn't open at the time. The fact that a bookshop like this could be sustainable here demonstrates the interests of the Burlington population. So if you're ever driving through a town, and you say "why, this place looks nice, quaint, pretty..., maybe I should move here," well, check out the local book shops and think it over carefully. Because maybe you don't want a Spirit Dancer in your neighborhood. Or, maybe you really do!

This brings to mind two specific thoughts about how bookshops (or even libraries--such as this image of the inside of the Fletcher Library) can determine, through the semiotics of their contents, their books, whether or not a person like myself would be comfortable living in a given town. The first thought concerns something I experienced this very week. I had a dentist appointment, and before I made my way to the dentist, I stopped to peruse the Borders bookshop down the street from the dentist. I'm always curious about how books and other items are placed or displayed in bookshops, specifically the mega bookshops, which are still working under some marketing and corporate guise. It was, for the most part, unremarkable: the latest books staring at you blankly, just as you walk in, 3 feet from your face; various dining room size tables piled up with the most recent novels, biographies, self-help, travel books; all of these positioned to make you negotiate a subtle labyrinth, which is meant to steer you toward something else to buy: cards, chocolates, bookish trinkets. At our local Borders, the magazine section is perhaps the most used, and situated immediately to one's left as you enter the store. But the real point of this exposition is the thing which struck me as most out of the ordinary, and in fact, was not actually out of the ordinary at all, because it symbolized far more than I realized: the wretched music blasting from the ceiling. The music was loud, pounding, unabashed, and primal. Some form of contemporary rock, for which I could not classify, but that reflected the needs and desires, surely, of the clientele.

I recalled from previous visits that this giant Borders bookstore was not a used bookstore, the grand old (or even quaint) bookshop of the past. This was the new, modern, one-stop-shop locus of contemporary fast-paced bourgeois (whatever that means or whomever may be classified as such!) One summer, years ago, there were a few blistering days in Chicago, which hit near 105F. Our AC couldn't deal with the heat and apparently no one else's could either. I spent a good part of the day in the AC'd shelter of the Borders, along with scores of other Hyde Parkers, including the local homeless, who'd taken up parking themselves and their wares under the window sills, sleeping in piles of themselves till it cooled down enough to go outside. On the second floor, there is the now ever-present "bookshop cafe" (usually a Starbucks), which serves a similar purpose of local meeting place for either peddlers or the ever-present chess clubs. At least a year ago, I overheard the proprietors of the legendary local used book shop Powell's talking about Borders closing, because of bad business. But its more than this, more than bad business. For me, and for many perhaps, who are part of the Hyde Park (and especially university) community, there is a sense of understanding or even subconsciously being aware of the aesthetics of a bookshop. Of course, I'd prefer being in a bookshop (even a new one), where the music is soothing, preferably something along the lines of a Mozart or Haydn keyboard sonata. To be pummeled by incongruous and debilitating muzak is not the experience of a book store that I'm looking for. And I'm not sure the 20-year-olds behind the counter controlling the stereo understand this. Or maybe they do, too well!

My second thought is along the same lines: On a trip to Mackinac Island in northern Michigan two summers ago, I drove up the west coast of that state, and stopped at every bookshop and library book sale I could find. In Traverse City, for example, I found a number of lovely book shops, but when it came to actually assessing the collections offered by these shops, I was sorely displeased. You see, the reading selections in many of these bookshops were sub-par for my tastes. And you may all shout a collective "don't be such a bibliosnob!" and I'll wink and concede. But the fact is, if the bookshops (and there are many of them in Michigan!) contain no or very little material that interests you, that indicates in some measure the reading tastes, interests, and to a lesser degree, habits of those in that area. And from this, we can also say that if those reading habits are not like yours, you'll surely have a harder time relating to the ethos of that area. Some of you may disagree, and admittedly this is seismically-less-than-scientific; but this is my primal assertion.

But Burlington...what about Burlington? Yes, well, I managed to find myself a suitable sandwich, pickle, chips, and soda. I walked around and scoped out the downtown. And then I went to the library. It was packed. Everyone was at the library. Its sale books? Adequate for my consumption, even though I didn't buy any. And adequate for any future possibility of moving to Burlington or Vermont in general. Books continue to tell us things, more than just their narratives and stories. Some people look at the facades or occupants of buildings, industry, or restaurants to determine the makeup of a community, in order to see its compatibility. I look at a place's bookshops and libraries. Try it out yourself sometime. One last thing: I like Burlington, but don't expect me to become a Spirit Dancer.

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