As 2010 was approaching, I began wondering what to write about here in the New Year. I knew I’d written a number of book reviews, an article about the Kindle, and an article recently about LibraryThing. While not the only focus of this blog, my most consistent “chant” has focused on books. I’ve also written some articles with a decidedly local flavor, and I wanted to write more about that. Then in December, an article in the Raleigh News & Observer about the annual America’s Most Literate Cities Study conducted by Central Connecticut State University, ranking top U.S. cities according to various factors contributing to a literate community, including the number of bookstores, library resources, overall educational attainment, newspaper circulation, and Internet resources. The knee-jerk response from the N&O, with tongue planted firmly in cheek, blamed Raleigh’s lowly rank on a flawed or rigged, further suggesting that the “Fighting Statisticians” of CCSU must just be on a hunt for publicity.
Perhaps not surprisingly, Seattle, Washington D.C., and Minneapolis came out at the top. Here are three towns with loads of bookstores, quality newspapers, a number of university libraries, and, certainly in the case of Seattle, petabytes of internet resources. Raleigh came in at number nineteen on the list, below such cities as Cleveland, Ohio, Lexington-Fayette, Kentucky, and Kansas City, Missouri. Nothing wrong with these other cities, mind you, but it seemed Raleigh should fare better. What was even more surprising was that our ranking had dropped five points from the previous year. What happened?
Looking at the study, Raleigh ranked 3rd, behind Seattle and Plano, Texas (huh?) for educational attainment. Not too shabby, so clearly something else was dropping our rank, two factors being the number of bookstores and the number of libraries. Neither of these low rankings seemed surprising. Conservative Southerners cut funding for libraries at the first sign of budget trouble, and even with three major universities in the area, the impact of these libraries beyond the university is, in my opinion, minimal. As for Triangle bookstores, there aren’t really that many around, with only a few independent bookstores; Barnes & Noble and Borders have practically taken over the book trade in the area, with a dozen or so stores between them, at every major shopping mall. But these chain stores, as nice as they are, aren’t really the stores the truly literate bibliophile seek out. As a fan of quality independent bookstores, it occurred to me that our lack of good independents surely is a reason for the Triangle’s comparative literary deficit.
With all that swimming in my head, I decided to pursue a literary quest, chronicled here for you, to visit every independent bookstore in the Triangle. This would be a good way to assess the state of independent bookstores, in the hopes of promoting them, improving them, and ultimately boosting the Triangle’s ranking for next year’s CCSU study. It also seemed like a good excuse to get out of the house, dabble about, and buy books. I decided to set a few ground rules for myself, as follows:
- I won’t visit major chain bookstores, like Barnes & Noble, Waldenbooks, and B. Dalton don’t count, even if they may be independently owned. For me, a good bookstore reflects the locale where it operates, and the shared interests of the staff and clientele. Chains generally don’t do a good job with that, although there certainly are exceptions.
- I won’t visit religious bookstores. First, I’m an agnostic, so I don’t really care to go to these stores, and second, I think these stores represent too narrow a perspective to advance the vanguard of literary culture.
- I won’t rank or rate the stores, but will try to give a sense of a stores overall zeitgeist: how was the customer service; were their particularly strong sections on, such as biographies; did they serve coffee, and was it good? You get the picture.
- I would go to the store on a quest for a particular book that I would expect to find, a reasonable measure of their inventory.
- I would buy a book from the store, to assess the stores customer service.
- Used bookstores are fair game.
- University bookstores, and we have a few, are fair game as well.
And then, after visiting each store, I will post a short travelogue of my visit, to encourage you to get up off the couch, and go get something to read. And if you do that, you will be doing your part to raise the Triangle’s literary ranking. It should be fun, hopefully for everyone, including the store owners.