Once in a while, my friend Patty Sullivan and I got to ride the bus to Springfield, or “downstreet” as my Mom used to say. Patty’s family didn’t have a car, so they knew the bus routes and my parents thought we were old enough for the adventure. Forbes and Wallace, and Steiger’s, were multi-floor department stores, mostly uninteresting and too expensive for twelve-year-olds, but Patty knew about the clearance section in the basement, so we’d wander around the jewelry counters. Woolworth’s was our next stop. We would circle endlessly, never buying anything, which seemed to drive the clerks crazy. Johnson’s Bookstore was where we ended our day.
Occupying two storefronts in buildings across the street from each other, connected by an underground tunnel walkway, Johnson’s was recognized in its heyday as the largest store of its kind in the area. It had books, art supplies, office and stationary items, records, and a toy section. Established in 1893, it was owned and managed by four generations of the Johnson family.
I don’t remember much about the store, except the uneven wood floors, the creaky stairs that turned the corner going up to the second floor, and the soft moss green-colored bags that held every purchase. But I do recall the way Johnson’s made me feel. While visiting—with my friend Patty on our parentless trips to the city, or later as a young working professional on my lunch hour from my first job—I remember interacting with attentive clerks. “We have several books by Judy Blume, let me show you.” “Have you tried Winsor and Newton watercolors?”
I felt doted on. Taken care of. Grown up. I was growing independent from my parents, becoming my own person. Discovering a love for books and for creating art. The staff at Johnson’s was consistently helpful, always respectful, whether I had been able to buy something or just look. They treated me as a peer, not a kid. Their culture was about service and they were well regarded right up to the day they closed their doors forever on January 5, 1998.
Springfield, a sprawling city in Western Massachusetts, saw its population peak in 1960, but like many other cities, its population declined as people moved to the suburbs. Shopping malls sprung up in the 1980s serving these new transplants, and businesses on Main Street couldn’t survive. The old Johnson’s now houses a FedEx location, and the downtown department stores were replaced with an MGM casino.
The nearest independent bookstore is a forty-minute drive from where my husband and I live in northern Connecticut. An airy and spacious Barnes and Noble is just a few miles away. It has books, movies, music, a Starbuck’s, and a selection of Cheesecake Factory desserts. The store associates at the Information kiosk are sometimes helpful, sometimes harried. Amazon is available on my phone and delivers to my front steps.
Until recently, I gave little thought to the effect Amazon and mega stores like Barnes and Noble have on independent bookstores. While Johnson’s demise had more to do with the birth of suburban shopping malls, the bigger is better and speedy convenience of Barnes and Noble and Amazon seem to be burying local businesses for good.
I’m conflicted. I love the idea of a leisurely stroll to the local bookstore, hardware store, butcher, and candy shop. Buying local supports a smaller carbon footprint, which is better for the planet.
But, I’m busy, and I live in the suburbs—nothing but my mailbox is in walking distance. When I had more time BMFA, that’s before the MFA, I would hang out at the Barnes and Noble. I spent lots of time and money there, even though they never acknowledged me by name. With my time more limited, I got used to the convenience of online ordering everything from books, to clothes, to vitamins, with deliveries arriving at my front door a week or two (or with Amazon, a day or two) later. The concept of community though—whether it’s my church, bagel shop, or bookstore—is what makes me feel whole. As I’ve become informed, I understand the impact that not supporting local businesses has. Booksellers are people. They live in town, highlight local authors, and give back by supporting charity fundraisers. They need our support. Options such as Bookstop.org, IndieBound.org, and Libro.fm are great resources. On this Small Business Saturday, let’s seek out these and other ways to support the local economy and the local community