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By Christine Stoddard
The feminist bookstore in the television show “Portlandia” reminds me of every small bookstore I've ever known throughout my nearly quarter of a century of life:
Aladdin's Lamp, the children's bookshop nestled between a jewelry place and a karate studio at the shopping center by my high school in Arlington, Virginia. The famous Prairie Lights in Iowa City that I knew as a freshman at Grinnell College. The vintage and antique bookshop on a cobblestoned backstreet in La Rochelle, France, where I spent a summer afternoon reveling in mustiness before finally buying some French comic books that surprisingly weren't Astérix or Tintin. Politics & Prose, Busboys and Poets, and Olsson's, which I grew to love each time I came to Washington, D.C. to see my parents over school breaks. The charmingly esoteric comic book store in Del Ray that also sells venus fly traps. The Virginia Shop in Old Town Alexandria where I taught two children creative writing amongst Colonial and Civil War tomes and stocking stuffers alike. Chop Suey Books, Velocity Comics, and Richmond Book Shop, which I first encountered while a student at Virginia Commonwealth University. And of course countless other shops I've popped by during my travels.
The bookshop that especially reminds me of the feminist bookstore in “Portlandia” is Bluestockings in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. This alternative bookshop and activist center carries anarchist and LGBT literature, plus a plethora of 'zines. It is small and cramped, just as every other independent bookstore I've ever known has been. The floor boards creak. As you flip through a self-published graphic novel from Brooklyn, you wonder what the shop was before it was a bookshop. Was it another shop? A tenement? Was it a cafe or restaurant? And what will it one day become?
When I stopped by Bluestockings in May, my parents actually came with me because I had an event there. My father, a native New Yorker, raised his eyebrows at the sight of stylish bars and boutiques. Crowds of well-dressed twenty- and thirty-somethings strode and stumbled along the sidewalk, depending on how they had spent their evening.
“This was not a nice neighborhood when I was growing up,” he simply said, conjuring images from Scorsese's “Mean Streets” in my mind. He often uses the film as a reference point for what Manhattan once was.
As the neighborhood continues to get “nicer,” I fear that a bookshop like Bluestockings will disappear, replaced by a high-end salon or frozen yogurt spot. It's a volunteer-run establishment and being in New York, the rent is high. I was listening to NPR the other day when I heard that Amazon.com does not make a profit. Being one who trusts but must always verify, I looked into it. It's true. Amazon does not make a profit. If Amazon can't, a place like Bluestockings has no hope (yes, they are a non-profit, but even non-profits have expenses.) Certainly the same goes for that bookshop in “Portlandia” and virtually every bookshop I've ever known. Olsson's and Aladdin's Lamp have both gone out of business.
I'm not mourning the loss of books because I firmly believe that the traditional codex, in all its paper glory, will exist forever. But I am mourning the loss of bookshops. Their time seems much shorter.