Now what kind of an attitude is that, these things happen? They only happen because this whole country is just full of people who, when these things happen, they just say these things happen, and that's why they happen!"
--Mrs. Marcus (Ethel Merman) in the 1963 movie It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World
I don't need to tell you that tomorrow is Independent Bookstore Day in the U.S. and Canada. And that's not all. Today is UNESCO World Book and Copyright day as well as World Book Night. It's a big weekend for booklovers.
"Covid-19 and the various lockdowns it has necessitated, have reminded people how valuable books can be in providing lifelines from one person to another, in creating human connections when those connections have been threatened in our regular day to day lives," Jamie Byng, WBN founder and Canongate CEO, observed in a recent blog post. "So anything that can foster further connections, that can short-circuit the process by which a book is placed in the hands of a new reader, feels like something we should all be encouraging."
Canadian bookseller Hilary Atleo, co-owner of Iron Dog Books, Vancouver, B.C., told the Sun that Canadian Independent Bookstore Day "is really important as an idea. As an idea of how much bookshops contribute to our communities and how much we are places of organization, of gathering and networking with each other, and of ideas.... What I love about Independent Bookstore Day is it isn't about I'm an independent store, you should shop with me. It's about saying independent bookstores are a part of the community. Part of the heart of our communities and we should support all of them."
Cathy Jesson, owner of Black Bond Books, Surrey and Canadian Independent Booksellers Association board director, said: "Beyond their support of the Canadian literary ecosystem, independent bookstores are pillars of their local communities. They offer inclusive space for important dialogue and cross-generational community engagement. And, when this is over, they will be a place for coming together once more."
Words are our business. I like literary ecosystem. It goes well with independent. If you own a bookshop, or work in a bookshop, or sell the books you've written in bookshops, or even--may Gutenberg's ghost bless you--buy books from bookshops, you've been using that incantatory term independent for a long time. We really love the word; it's literally how we define ourselves. An independent bookseller is not just a concept or wish. It is a statement.
And yet, over the past year we have also been reminded once again that indie booksellers are members of a vulnerable community who somehow find strength in their ability to adapt to circumstances and help one another when times are tough. Under the lethal threat of Covid-19, bookstores have survived by using tools both old (the bicycle, USPS) and new (upgraded online sales tools, Zoom). They've found a "new place" to complement their temporarily off-limits physical "third place." And they continue to communicate frankly with customers and colleagues about the ongoing challenges of staying in business.
A literary ecosystem has certainly helped sustain bookselling life during the pandemic. Independence is a wonderful concept, and IBD/CIBD a great way to celebrate it. For a long time, however, I've thought we should give equal weight to the word interdependent when talking about bookshops.
Independence and dependence are dual forces that make the book world work only when they are in harmony. Independent booksellers depend upon their patrons. People wanting to--choosing to--buy books directly from indies is no small miracle these days. Of course, booksellers would love to have even more of them make that choice regularly, and continue to search for strategies, even during troubled times, to encourage such habits. That is a key part of the job description.
Booksellers also depend on colleagues and friends throughout the book trade, nationally and internationally. These connections have been invaluable during the past year, the literary ecosystem thriving on mutual sustenance.
So, we celebrate another Independent Bookstore Day tomorrow. It will be better than last year because booksellers know a lot more about what they are up against and have many reasons for a momentary sigh of relief. But while independence will be justifiably highlighted this weekend, I'd also like to raise a glass to toast interdependence. As Black Bond's Jesson told the Sun, "Everyone rallying together on one day is a powerful reminder to carry the support through the rest of the year."
In this mad, mad, mad, mad world, a single book moving from one pair of hands to another still seems like a miracle. Despite the fervid belief Mrs. Marcus had in establishing personal control over fate when "these things happen," our individual superpowers are limited. Independent may just be too small a word to encompass what tomorrow's festivities symbolize, but we'll celebrate (masked-up or online or outside or whatever it takes) anyway. Happy Interdependent Bookstore Day.