I was working in the bookstore late one evening when a customer asked for me. "I'm looking for a book," he said, "and I saw your staff picks around the store and thought you might be able to help me." I asked him what kind of book he was looking for. He paused for a moment, then his voice caught and it seemed like he might start crying: "I'm looking for a book that will change my life."
In 20 years of bookselling, I've had customers share surprisingly intimate details of their lives with me. A woman in her late 50s asked me for books on relationships, but after I walked her to the section, she started crying and confided the story of her daughter's marriage to an abusive man, and how she needed a book that could save her. A well-dressed couple, him in a suit and her in a wrap dress, came in over the holidays and asked me for books to give a friend who was just diagnosed with terminal cancer. They had tried searching on Amazon, but the titles that came up were about the mechanics of how to survive, not the particular poetry of living with dying. More than once someone has asked me for a good novel, "something that will make me laugh," only to admit once I'd found a book for them, that they needed something funny to distract them from some trauma or drama that they then proceeded to share with me. A hipster asked me for books on personal finances; she was determined to begin the long crawl out of a deep debt. A famous actor admitted his stage fright and asked for a copy of Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway. A young woman asked me for books on recovering from loss; she had recently lost a child...
In the wake of Internet competition, bookstores have been feeling like publisher showcases and promoting ourselves as literary curators. But our true value may be as basic as this: often people come to us simply to talk to another human being. In a world that is more and more automated, computerized, web-based, sometimes, someone just wants to tell their story to another human being, feel like someone heard them, and take away hope that things will change -- hope in the form of a book.
I walked with the customer downstairs and we went through my staff picks that he had seen earlier: Going to Pieces Without Falling Apart, A Woman's Worth, The Gift of Fear. At various points these books had all shifted my perspective, changed my way of thinking, even saved my life one could say. Diet for a Small Planet inspired my conversion to vegetarianism when I was 18. The Comfort Trap helped me bring necessary closure to my 10-year marriage. Wherever You Go, There You Are introduced me to meditation and a new mindful approach to my life. As Thoreau wrote, "How many a man has dated a new era in his life from the reading of a book."
These recent years have marked a new era for all of us, one full of changes. And for many people, those changes felt dramatic and alarmingly sudden. But they were years in the making, the results of hundreds of decisions we all made every single day: who we voted for, who we trusted, where we shopped, where we didn't shop, what we chose to not pay attention to, and so on. I'm not saying the global economic meltdown is our fault, but I am suggesting that perhaps right now we are making choices every day that will influence our future. A decision to save $6.00 on Amazon, multiplied by thousands of customers every day, means that your local bookstore, the place where you hang out, meet friends, met your partner, or found the book that changed your life, may not be there next year...
But for now, many of us brick and mortar booksellers are still here, committed to what I believe is a noble pursuit: putting the right book in the right person's hands. Tonight when I left work there were 30 people lined up for the grilled cheese food truck in our parking lot. There were another 40 people in our event space to hear a first-time author read. There were 10 members of a book club discussing a new novel, and another dozen folks in our coffee shop, most of them reading or writing. A family in the children's department was reading picture books together, and another 15 people quietly browsed the bookshelves. It is in these moments that I am awed by the role a bookstore plays in a community, a feeling made even more awesome by the realization that today we sold 1,087 books, any one of which could change someone's life.
Also on HuffPost: