Recently, one of our local traditions here in town closed its doors for good. Booktraders was a staple in downtown Winter Haven for decades, and after two different owners’ attempts at reviving its business, the used bookstore was decorated with deceptively happy-looking yellow signs in its big front windows: FREE BOOKS.
I entered just like dozens of times before, this time with less enthusiasm and curious optimism. The smell of old paperbacks, wood shelving and historical bindings filled me as it had during all those other prior visits, but this time, it was the scent of defeat. People were inside filling carts and boxes with books that they probably never would have “traded” their own used books for previously. During this glut of knowledge, it seemed to matter little whether the books had any real appeal to the hoarders or not. Books were free! The scene was not confrontational like the 1980s ugliness of Cabbage Patch Kid mania, or more recent consumer battles for the hottest items or gadgets. Nonetheless, it was an unseemly display of avarice at its basest: Humans turned hyenas by someone else’s loss.
The real sadness of the situation was its broader commentary upon our current culture. Thanks to electronic everything and a constant shove toward productivity, efficiency and expedience, Booktraders met its La Brea Tar Pits-style extinction, a slow and steady groaning descent into fossilization. I remember summers when my mother, an English teacher for our local public high school, would leisurely read through paperback after paperback. She instilled this love of pleasure-reading into all of her children, myself included. Her friends, more literate members of our community, likewise would consume books by the handful, especially during the summer. That type of leisure reading, however, seems more and more to be a thing of the distant past. Certainly, there are those select bibliophiles who consciously consume traditional texts, but the larger portrait of American reading habits paints a grim picture — one comprised of people engaged in more reading-like activities (texting, Facebook-checking, etc.) than in actual comprehension.
I admit it: I was not above the shuffle and scavenge of Booktraders’ end, I hate to say. I, too, walked away with three free books (pictured above) that actually piqued my interest. At least by saving these few volumes, I could promise them a good home rather than some cold resale. This act was a first for me as a lover of literature: walking away sorrowfully with books tucked beneath my arm. The creak and close of the store’s wooden doors behind me resonated like a casket’s final seal before burial.
The shuttering of Booktraders is a totem of a larger societal shift that is neither promising nor positive. When we are willing to prey on books but not give them our earnest attention and appreciation, we can no longer call ourselves a civilization. As publishing undergoes increasing transition, I suspect that real readers will become the fulfillment of Ray Bradbury’s prophecies in the iconic novel Fahrenheit 451. We will be the outliers in a world walled in by electronic messaging and superficial relationships. Eventually, those of us who have bothered to memorize important passages will be glanced upon skeptically, even suspiciously. Perhaps this sounds extreme and even conspiracy-nuttish, but history paints a picture of prior societies who have fallen under similar strains. When we lose our love of literature, we lose our humanity.
For now, Booktraders does not rest in peace. It rests in pieces — fragments of disheveled disarray, the byproduct of mindless consumerism. It deserves better. It deserves honor. It deserves love. Farewell old friend, and thank you.