No Longer Between Books

by Donna McLaughlin Schwender

Well-loved independent book store unexpectedly closing in Delaware. (Photo taken by Anita Gail)

Well-loved independent book store unexpectedly closing in Delaware. (Photo taken by Anita Gail)

How is it possible to feel such overwhelming guilt for the closing of a bookstore in Claymont, Delaware – one whose shelves I have never even had the privilege of browsing and that is located more than four hours from my home? I actually would have been oblivious to the sad news had my dear friend Anita not posted it on her Facebook page (along with the above photo that she took of the store’s facade and graciously allowed me to use here). Thank you Anita and thank you Facebook….I think.

Between Books, one of the few remaining independently owned bookstores in Delaware, was happily closing in on its thirty-third anniversary. On February 22nd, a few weeks shy of reaching such a milestone, shop owner Greg Schaeur posted what I can only imagine was a very unexpected message on the store’s website. Short – but far from sweet – it simply read, “I have written and rewritten this a million times in my head over the last few days. Words fail me. It is with a heavy heart that I must announce Between Books Going Out of Business sale will begin Saturday, February 23rd. We have lost our lease. More information soon. Please spread the word.” What had been a “closing in” on a joyous event is now a “closing” of the worst kind.

I don’t pretend to have any idea why – after having been in its current location for more than 25 years – the store has lost its lease. I don’t really want to even speculate on the reason. Regardless if it’s financial, personal, or something else, the end result is that the world has one less option when it comes to connecting “hands on” with books.

“Oh well,” some might say. “One less store – the world will go on without it.” Yes – yes it will. But at what price? Chris Van Trump, an “on and off” employee of Between Books since 1997, clarified the answer to that question so much more eloquently than I ever could in his February 23rd blog post entitled, “Do Not Go Gentle.”

“This place, this sanctuary, is fading from the world, and we are all poorer for its passing. All the more so because it is not alone in this fate.

Places like this used to be common, the small businesses that formed the beating heart of the communities that accumulated around them like layers of pearl, slowly growing year by year into lustrous jewels beyond price.

We’ve lost that. We threw it away, in fact, sacrificing community on the altar of savings, trading knowledge for selection, and now we’re left with the rotting carcasses of the warehouse stores, themselves devoured in turn by a flagging economy and an ascendent internet.”

One doesn’t need to be a past or present employee to feel the loss though. The Delaware Liberal’s commentary about the closing got right to the point with its opening remarks of, “This is depressing. Beyond depressing, really.”

A Google search quickly revealed to me how much of a jewel Between Books has become to its community. Without fail, I always expect to see some form of negative review about every “business” I research, whether it’s a restaurant, a doctor, a bookstore, or a mere book review. Such was definitely NOT the case for Between Books. I literally found NONE.

A mere sample of what I did find includes a Yelp review proclaiming, “This bookshop isn’t a fancy Borders or Barnes and Noble type place with fancy wood floors and cappuccino…it’s the type of place where you can get lost in the stacks and spend a whole day browsing and chatting with others. You feel totally welcome when you’re there.” Praises on the Indie Bound website were just as complimentary “…it’s run by people who aren’t like the creatures you’ll find in a Borders. They *know* things. Arcane things. They’ve met authors you’ve heard rumored to exist in some alternate universe. They celebrate new books with writers by putting their book covers on a cake. They throw a party. And their audience is as diverse as the store itself. From children to old crazies like me. This is the store you go into and come out with much of your well-earned boodle turned alchemically into reading material. The draw is unavoidable.”

Even a cartoon drawn to celebrate Between Books’ thirtieth anniversary pays homage to the fact that it was “the” place to be, as far back as the 1970’s and especially on “new comics Thursday.”

Cartoon created for Between Books' 30th anniversary. (Artwork by Steve Ressel)

Cartoon created for Between Books’ 30th anniversary. (Artwork by Steve Ressel)

Back to my original question though – why do I personally feel guilty, as if I was somehow partly responsible for this store’s demise? For far too long now, I must confess that my annual book budget has been spent at local library sales (which I have justified as helping them out, as well as my own personal expense account) and at online sites, primarily Amazon. Truth be told, my latest Amazon book order JUST arrived yesterday; a writing book for myself and a golf techniques one for my husband.

This past Christmas, I actually chose a book I wanted to share with a dozen new friends I met in an online writing course. Unable to purchase it at a local Barnes and Noble – unless I was willing to pay an inordinate amount for shipping – I got desperate. I not only resorted to buying all the copies I could from an Amazon “dealer,” but I (gulp) ordered the last few copies through Wal-Mart. Not my proudest moment.

I am someone who has loudly bemoaned the rise of ebooks at what I believe is at the expense of “real” books. I am also someone who has chanted the mantra for many years to support local small businesses (including those who grow much of my food). That being the case, I simply can’t fathom WHY those beliefs have translated into my now not being able to remember the last time I set foot in an independently owned local bookstore. And yes – there are a number of great ones to choose from. The fact that I am also a writer as well as a local business owner makes the hypocrisy of my actions that much worse. I truly feel so very shameful.

Chris Van Trump’s blog post was the wake-up call I needed. Even though he feels as if the world has ended, I am grateful that he also has hope. “Hope that the small business will see a resurgence in an age where people have begun to realize what they’ve lost, where that intimate relationship between retailer and consumer means more than a handful of shallow reviews from strangers on the web or a massive box full of things that nobody needs.” Per his call to action, I will indeed “rage, before [I] wake up and realize what [I’ve] lost.”

In what might be described as a haunting precursor to this entire story, Greg Schauer was actually quoted in an August, 2011 article about how Delaware’s independent bookstores were fighting to survive, even as the local Borders was going out of business. He commented how, “I feel bad for the people who are losing their jobs, but I watched so many of my friends lose their businesses. I survived the devastation Borders brought to Delaware bookstores when they moved in to the state and will outlive them.” He did indeed outlive them, but perhaps not as long as he imagined he would.

Will he return after this devastation? Only time will tell. Who knows – it’s possible that the final chapter of this story has yet to be written. I’ll be keeping my eyes open for a sequel, as well as hoping for a happy ending.