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Over Easy: The Valley Needs a Great Big Bookstore

  • The Dartmouth Bookstore, operated by Barnes & Noble College Booksellers, Inc., in Hanover, N.H., will close by the end of the year after failing to renew its lease with building owner Jay Campion. Photographed Friday, Sept. 28, 2018. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.



For the Valley News
Monday, October 22, 2018

The anticipated closing of the Dartmouth Bookstore by year-end is an utter disaster. For readers, Main Street will not be Main Street, Hanover will not be Hanover. It remains to be seen if the Upper Valley will be the Upper Valley without it.

This is hyperbolic, but just a bit. A bookstore is both necessary and central in a college town. It is the village green of the mind.

When the closure comes to pass, book people should mass in an angry literary protest. To be sure, a riot of readers would be understated, as such things go, since many are introverted and keep their thoughts to themselves. Perhaps they could march, inwardly indignant, each reading essays lamenting the decline of bookstores. That would show them!

I wonder how the evolution of retail (chain stores wipe out mom-and-pop stores, only to be squashed by Amazon) could further drive a stake into our hearts. How about a Dartmouth Dollar Store on Main Street? Or Big Green Auto Parts? Oh, the humanity!

When we moved to the Upper Valley in 1982, there were two inconsequential bookstores in Lebanon. When we visited the Dartmouth Bookstore we felt reassured by its nooks, crannies, dozens of magazines and legions of books. We may have come to the boonies, but there was a very good — maybe excellent — bookstore in this particular boonie.

It just so happened that we went to the Nugget Theater, another Hanover institution, on the same evening the pending closure was revealed in the Valley News. The movie, The Bookshop, told of a woman’s dream to own a small bookstore in a coastal town in England.

“No one ever feels alone in a bookshop,” the woman declared. Amen, I responded.

A bookstore, a good one that is, has a mysterious quality that certain churches and ancient buildings share. In good bookstores you can feel that others have stood on the same floors, a long line of knowledge-seekers and lovers of words and stories.

Browsing is a patient hunt, where you slowly stalk your prize in silence, almost reverence. Around any corner might be a volume that will delight you, perhaps change your day, your week, maybe more. Amid the best-sellers, self-help gurus and carnival barkers, there is, perhaps, something meaningful or beautiful.

It also cheers me to see evidence, in a time when so many public matters seem to be handled with unashamed ignorance, that there are authors thinking deeply, writers who soar beyond my distractions — the weather, the Red Sox, the daily cavalcade of outrage.

In a way, I am complicit in the decline of bookstores. In recent years I haven’t bought many books. For a time, 40 percent off coupons from the departed Borders pulled me in, but with retirement approaching and now finally here, I’ve relied more on the wonderful Lebanon libraries, where even overdue fines are passé.

I also frequent Lebanon’s little free libraries, where you can take and keep a book as long as you like, or forever, a boon for slow readers and book jugglers — those like me who keep four or five going at once.

Even the Lebanon recycling center is a literary salon, albeit sometimes smelly, with its dented metal bookcase of giveaways. It has an oddball assortment of dusty college textbooks, religious tomes and romances about lusty pirates with a sensitive side. You might find unexpected guides (Learn Lithuanian!) or dated manuals like Master Windows 95. But keep looking; I just found To End All Wars, which the New York Times called a “moving and important book.” It’s now on the leaning tower of books next to my bed.

I snap up books at thrift stores for a quarter, yard sales for a dime, waiting for a pearl of low price. Sometime later I give them away, keeping the wheel of reading turning.

To be perfectly honest, the Dartmouth Bookstore’s glory days were past. But the heyday was something. In the 1980s, its annual record sale was a major Upper Valley event. It sold Apple computers when home computers were new and exciting. And then there were all those nooks and crannies that delighted children. And the discount tables out front that led readers into temptation.

It seemed unsettling when the Barnes & Noble college chain bought the store in recent years, a loss for local control and culture. But still, the prime Main Street location continued to make a loud statement about the value of books and reading.

Of course, downtown Hanover will go on without the Dartmouth Bookstore. But readers will feel a loss, a loneliness, that wasn’t there before.

Dan Mackie lives in West Lebanon. He can be reached at dan.mackie@yahoo.com.