I’m browsing the paperbacks stacked neatly on the table outside my favorite bookstore when a trim, silver-haired man nearby remarks “What a great selection! I always find something good to read when I come here. This store provides a service that Borders  couldn’t begin to match.” He pauses. “I love Julie!”

This isn’t a non sequitur. He’s referring to Julie Summerfield, the clever and personable woman who has managed the Haverford College Bookstore for the past 28 years. (At right, she helps some grads into their caps and gowns.)

I love Julie too, and I love this store. The HCB is something  increasingly rare — an independent bookstore. A college bookstore that isn’t part of a chain, it’s stocked with great, well-chosen titles and staffed with people who know books and love them.

When I recently poked my head into another college bookstore, there wasn’t a book to be seen.  There were plenty of sweatshirts, key chains and caps. There were textbooks, hidden away at the back of the store. But if you actually wanted a book to read, you were out of luck.

The HCB also sells sweatshirts and key chains.  Not to mention greeting cards, dorm room supplies and a staggering variety of tasty snacks for students with the munchies. But it’s still about the books. Not about formulaic bestsellers, or titles a publisher has paid the store to feature, or inventory that a distant corporate office has decreed should fill the shelves.  Books that somebody (Julie) has taken the care to select. Books that I may not have heard of before I stopped in,  but that I’ll enjoy reading when I get home.

What about Borders or Barnes and Noble?  I enjoy a well-brewed latte as well as the next person, and there’s no better place to peruse the latest Paris Vogue without actually having to pay the staggering cover price. The Borders café is a good place to meet a Match.com date for the first time to suss out whether he intends to take you home and strangle you at the end of the evening. But if I need a good read, I head over to the Haverford College Bookstore.

I recently spent the better part of an afternoon in Julie’s store while a friend and her college-bound son explored the Haverford campus. Not only was I reminded of why I so love a good bookstore, I was able to witness what the store meant to a variety of customers.

It starts when you enter the store — you’re greeted personally, often by name. Bookstore staff  recognize the regulars and make an effort to get to know the newbies.  “Did you finish that paper?” Frank asks a student. Another is congratulated about a recent sports victory. I was asked about my son’s upcoming wedding. It’s clear that many students drop by just to enjoy browsing and kibbitzing with bookstore staff.  And its not just students who feel at home here. Professors (and their kids), visiting parents, alums,  and friends of the store like myself are all made to feel welcome.

It’s like Cheers, but with books instead of beer.

Julie and her staff not only know their customers, they know what’s on the shelves, which makes them fabulous “book yentas” – expert at matching the right book with the right reader. If you need a gift book for your teenaged nephew, they’ve got the title. If you’re down in the dumps and need a humor book to cheer you up, they’ll find you one. If you ask for a historical novel to read on your flight, after a question or two about your taste in books, Julie will recommend something you’ll find so absorbing you won’t even notice when that hole opens up in the fuselage.

A friend who is a former independent bookseller and still keeps up with trade gossip says there’s a movement in academia to play down selling books and focus on pushing merchandise, transforming college bookstores into mere “college stores.” It’s troubling to think a college wouldn’t value an actual bookstore on campus.  And it makes me all the more grateful this particular bookstore is thriving. A steady flow of customers kept the staff jumping. .

The only sour note was learning that Cody, the bookstore’s cat, had recently been “fired” by the administration after eight years of faithful service. (The mother of an allergic student had complained.)  Cody was loved by many customers (especially freshmen homesick for their own cats). And with Cody on the job, the store never had to worry about rodents nibbling their way into the bags of chips after hours. Was banishing the beloved bookstore cat an early warning sign that the shop was abandoning its individuality and creeping toward soulless corporate culture? That’s unthinkable. Yet, independent bookstores currently face so many threats to their existence they should be considered an endangered species, and cherished and nurtured as such.

At afternoon’s end, I left, a very happy customer. I had a new novel I couldn’t wait to read, some delicious Belgian chocolate to nosh while I enjoyed it, and that upbeat feeling you get when you’ve been among friends. I felt like part of a community. (The few, the proud, the bookish).  I matter to them and they matter to me.

So, if you love books. Not “content.” Not reading on an electronic device. Books that you can pick up, leaf through, take home and curl up with. Seek out your nearest independent bookstore. Visit it often. Support it with your dollars. Because if independent bookstores go the way of Cody the cat, we’ll all miss out.

 

 

What is your favorite independent bookstore? Tell us about it in the comments section below.

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  • Roz Warren February 2, 2012 at 7:31 pm

    Update: Julie is now working at Children’s Book World in Haverford, PA, an exceptional (and independent) bookstore.

    Reply
  • Kathleen K. Grace May 18, 2011 at 11:25 am

    Thanks, Roz, for recognizing my friend and colleague, Julie Summerfield. She truly is special. She is one-of-a-kind. Just like her store.

    Thanks, too, for pointing out some of the advantages of institutionally-operated college bookstores. Like Julie and her store, each and every one is unique to their own campus. And that, as the commercial says, is priceless!

    Reply