Sunday, June 29, 2008

The Blessed Sameness of Barnes & Noble

I've been living in Montgomery, Alabama, for just about a month now.  Montgomery's quite a nice little Southern city.  There's the AA minor league baseball team - the Montgomery Biscuits (yes, really, the Biscuits) - and the Shakespeare festival I haven't been to yet and a few pockets of sophistication nestled in among the meat-and-threes and the Confederate memorials and the shocking display on George Wallace in the state archives. 

Still, aside from my two-year stint in Moscow, this is the first time in my life I've lived in a city where you can't have the New York Times delivered to your doorstep.  After a month, the novelty of returning to the world of grits, bibles, and flying roaches was beginning to wear off.  This week was hot, the Alabama criminal justice system is depressing, and federalism was getting me down.  I needed a shot of cosmopolitanism.  So I went to Barnes & Noble.

Oh, I know I'm supposed to lament the advent of stores like Barnes & Noble.  Displacing the local bookstore, bulldozing regional variation, imposing that nowhereland retail chain sameness in town after American town.  You're all good liberals; you know the rant.

But here's the secret.  Today, I love Barnes & Noble.  Today, that sameness - that reliable green lettering, those wooden shelves so predictably stocked - is no less than a blessing.  Is like central air on a muggy afternoon.  Is restorative.  Is comforting.  Is the sameness not of blight, but of cosmopolitan promise.  And is definitely the only place in Montgomery that sells vegetarian cookbooks.

I bought: Moosewood Restaurant Simple Suppers: Fresh Ideas for the Weeknight Table; The Ten Year Nap, a new novel by Meg Wolitzer I discovered while browsing the Atlantic Monthly in the periodical aisle; 2007 Best American Short Stories, edited, somewhat alarmingly, by Stephen King; and the collected poems of Philip Larken.  It was a beautiful splurge.  I feel renewed and ready to do battle with habeas corpus law (and Alabama roaches) once again.


Joyce Cheng said...

I think this comment about B&N is very honest and revealing about American culture and the age of corporate capitalism.

I have always suspected that western capitalism has, for better or worse, taken over what used to be the responsibility of the Roman Catholic church. To feel that, wherever you go in the world, you can walk into a Catholic parish and (granted that colors, language and aesthetic might be different) it's going to smell and sound the same as your home - that feeling is now reserved for Barnes & Noble, MacDonald's, etc.

In the Middle Ages, the Catholic church could be accused of packaging culture: same "corporation" in charge of art, architecture, music, literature, metaphysics, ethics. At the same time, it is not true that it has homogenized the world. A Flemish Madonna looks nothing like an Italian one, for example. Can we, however, say the same of corporate capitalism?

What Laura is pointing out is that Barnes & Noble might be the only and best source of culture in many places in the US. It is good that it's there, then, but I don't think that we have the right to be content with that.

Joyce Cheng said...

I have one more thing to add in concert to Laura's B&N sentiment.

The other day, I shopped at Macy's and had to give my zip code as I paid for my purchases. The young lady at the cash register immediately recognized my "60615" and said, "You live in Hyde Park?" To which I responded, delighted, "Yes." She said, "I know, I used to live there too, I was born in Hyde Park." We went on a brief discussion about the neighborhood: I told her that I like it very much, but she lamented that "it ain't the way it used to be." Why not?

"All the old stores are gone," she said.

I nodded in agreement, but I immediately assumed that she was referring to the old mom & pap shops and boutiques that have perhaps disappeared even before I moved down here.

"The McDonald's gone, you know, the one on 53rd street," she said.

"But there is another McDonald's, and it's just as nice," I protested, referring to the one next to the gas station.

"But it's gotta be THAT ONE," she said, "I used to have my birthday parties there."

There, I believe, is the American life. Laura is right that B&N is the best source of culture in many places in the US, and I might add that the local McDonald's might be the best locus for that irreplaceable feeling of community in many places. The lady from Hyde Park was a black American, but I suspect that McDonald's also transcends race and ethnicity. Disturbingly, capitalism does fulfill its promise: it brings people together.

Once again, the Catholic church used to play that role of bringing different peoples together, and it has been replaced by capitalism. Is there, however, something that is missed in the capitalist form of together-ness? Might it have to do with the fact that the old way was a triangular relationship (God-church-people) whereas the new way is a two-way street (commodity-people)?

The stool is missing a third leg, I suggest, which is why it is only holding up very precariously.