"They paved paradise and put up a parking lot."
Joni Mitchell's landmark lyrics are often overused to the point of triteness, but in this case they're as true as her original sentiment. The Raconteur, a suburban New Jersey bookstore that took on a greater cultural significance, permanently closes its doors today.
Alex Dawson, a playwright from New Jersey, opened the store in 2004 on the main street in Central Jersey's Metuchen. I live only 15 minutes away but discovered it less than two years ago through the recommendation of a friend. In that short amount of time, I was fortunate enough to not only shop there, taking great advantage of their 50 percent off policy (especially when the list price on books was decades-old and they still honored their house discount), but also attend a wide variety of amazing and unique free cultural events.
The store was a safe haven for literati, replete with endless new, used and rare books on any number of subjects, fascinating artifacts from far-flung corners of the world and local visual art. However, it had the added distinction of bringing together artists and appreciators from all over New Jersey, New York City, the United States and sometimes even the world. Dawson created a space that was more welcoming and enriching than most bookstores and even art venues in New York City.
Every week, there were events -- open to the public, at no cost -- ranging from reading series and theatrical performances to rock shows and circus performers, most with the added bonus of complimentary wine. Some of my personal favorites were John Wesley Harding reading and playing music, Ted Alexandro sharing his signature observational humor and Jane Hardy performing a monologue as Gertrude Stein.
The New York Times profiled the upcoming closing a couple months ago, capturing some of the spirit and joy that was inherent in spending time at the store, but it's difficult to explain to those who haven't experienced it firsthand.
More closings are sadly on the horizon, as The New York Times recently wrote another arts obituary, this time mourning the "musical mainstays" of Greenwich Village's Bleecker Bob's Golden Oldies and Park Slope's Southpaw, a record store from the 1960s and performance space, respectively.
Unlike those independent institutions, The Raconteur is going out somewhat on its own merits, as Dawson is moving forward and developing his playwriting and directing career. I will share interviews with himself and others on the store and what lies ahead in the near future.
In the meantime, I'd like to take this opportunity to not just grieve the loss of an incredible institution, but also celebrate the wonderful art and experiences it has given me and countless others. Though it may "always seem to go that you don't know what you've got 'til it's gone," in this case, I think everyone knew just how special The Raconteur was during its tenuous existence, which makes parting such sweet sorrow.
Readers, what are some of your favorite independent bookstores and arts venues? Are they still in business?