I’m always struck by the small things that distinguish my home town in southeast Missouri from my adopted home, the Upper West Side of Manhattan. I’d never really noticed until today, for instance, but the only houses that are architecturally “modern” in any recognizable sense are a half-dozen Frank Lloyd Wright knockoffs built in the late Fifties. Similarly, you rarely see reproductions of modern art on anybody’s walls. It’s as though time had stopped in 1900. None of the video stores carries more than a handful of “older” films (i.e., made prior to 1975). I was astonished to find Citizen Kane and Casablanca at the neighborhood video store this afternoon. And while our local cable service offers Turner Classic Movies as part of its regular package, TCM isn’t included in the program guide published each day in the local newspaper. To find out what’s showing, you’ve got to buy TV Guide or go on line.
I went Christmas shopping this morning, driving 30 miles to the nearby college town where most of my former neighbors do their “serious” shopping. It has a medium-sized mall and two movie theaters that show about 10 first-run features on any given day–nothing out of the ordinary, though I did see You Can Count on Me at the older theater a couple of years ago. From my point of view, the most important store in the mall is a Barnes & Noble, the only good-sized bookstore in the immediate vicinity. (The sole bookstore in my home town is a small shop that deals in used paperbacks.) I noticed that none of this year’s National Book Award nonfiction nominees was in stock, not even Carlos Eire’s Waiting for Snow in Havana, the winner. On the other hand, I did find five copies of the trade paperback edition of The Skeptic: A Life of H.L. Mencken, a pleasant surprise.
After I finished shopping, I treated myself to a frappuccino in the Starbucks café attached to the bookstore, and took a closer look at the mural on the wall above the serving counter. It portrays an oddly eclectic, vaguely PC assortment of authors seated in an imaginary coffeehouse: Isaac Bashevis Singer, Franz Kafka, Pablo Neruda, Rabindranath Tagore, Zora Neale Hurston, Virginia Woolf, Raymond Chandler, D.H. Lawrence, Carl Sandburg, Edith Wharton, and somebody named Hughes (presumably Richard, the author of A High Wind in Jamaica, though I don’t know what he looked like and so can’t say for sure). I didn’t check, but I doubt if many of them were represented on the shelves of the store.
I’m not being sarcastic or dismissive, by the way. Growing up in a small town gives you a different perspective on chain bookstores, just as it causes you to see the Wal-Mart phenomenon from the point of view of the people for whom such stores are an unimaginable boon. (The first Wal-Mart outside Arkansas was built in my home town.) The Barnes & Noble where I shopped today isn’t remotely close in quality to any big-city bookstore, independent or otherwise, but it’s still a vast improvement on nothing. When I was a boy, people in southeast Missouri went to the library or did without. Now they can drive 30 miles to the Barnes & Noble, or order from amazon.com. Times are changing, slowly but surely—but slowly.