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A lament for Maple Street

By Clark Allen

The Uptown used branch of Maple Street Book Shop. (Photo by Sink Stuart)

The Uptown used branch of Maple Street Book Shop. (Photo by Sink Stuart)

By now I feel most literate adults have had some sort of discussion about the dynamic time in which we find ourselves in terms of reading—the way we read is changing, has changed, exponentially, magnificently. Not since the invention of the printing press has there been such an insane shove in accessibility of information.

The internet is no longer totally new, and barring some dismal societal collapse it is here to stay, and certainly it will proceed and evolve. This is obvious, I suppose, but slightly less so is that people are making choices about it: choices as to whether their eyes feel more comfortable resting on a lighted screen or a yellowed page; choices as to whether the convenience of downloading the text of Brave New World is preferable to making a trip across town to pick up a physical copy; choices as to whether it’s more cost-efficient to buy Game of Thrones paperbacks locally or place an order for them through the same company that can afford to ship not only the books, but an entire entertainment system, allowing you to catch up on the HBO dramatization as well, maybe in 3D.

There are so many choices for everybody who reads, and as these choices are made and accumulate, they are subtly affecting the world of reading.

Up until a couple of weeks ago, I had been employed by the New Orleans literary institution Maple Street Book Shop—though, much to my dismay, I was laid off just shy of its half-century anniversary along with a number of other long-time employees. I know this was not an easy decision for the management to make. In the near two years I was with the shop, I watched them make innumerable valiant attempts to stir up steadily declining business, while still taking every possible care to keep up appearances, and keep both customers and staff happy.

Maintaining the status quo dug into its own pockets and, sadly, at times, its dignity. Bizarre “literary” accoutrements began to line the shelves in place of the works they impotently represented, as they generated more revenue than the titles themselves. This only prolonged the eventual inevitable, however, and if you happened to be a member of the Maple Street Book Shop’s mailing list, you would have received this sad message last month:

With great sadness, we will be closing our Bayou St. John and Healing Center branches at the end of the month. We were not able to build up a large enough sales base to maintain their operation. June 28th will be their final day of business. Until then, starting June 15th, all books at both stores will be 50% off. Groupons will continue to be redeemable at all of our locations, but cannot be combined with the clearance discount.

Our Uptown stores will remain open. We will be having a summer clearance sale at our Used and Rare Shop (7523 Maple Street) to make way for the expansion and consolidation of our inventory.

Though our shop footprint is decreasing, we hope our foot traffic won’t. We thank you for your support over the years and during this transition period. We will be working with the managers of both the Bayou St. John and Healing Center shops to ensure our re-stocked Uptown location carries many of the wonderful authors and titles you’ve come to expect from us. 2014 will be Maple Street Book Shop’s 50th year serving the New Orleans community. Here’s to 50 more.

The message itself is discreet and optimistic, expressing confidence in the community it’s nestled in to continue to serve it and serve reciprocally. In the last weeks of my employment, however, weeks which lasted through the sale mentioned above, I found it difficult to contain my feelings of gross dread. While of course I saw a small procession of mourners, expected regulars and new faces both lamenting what is to be a notable change in the landscape of New Orleans’ bibliophiles, for each of them were two more rejoicing about the discounts, seemingly oblivious to the consequences of what prompted them.

I wanted to shout. How could they not be getting this? This is bad. A public refuge that reliably provides education and entertainment—not only by its means of acquiring capital, but often at its own expense by opening itself as a venue for local literary events—is perhaps for the first time publicly admitting that straights are dire! Beyond this being an issue for the bank accounts of owners and employees (past and present), this is an issue for the local community, and in a weird microcosmic kind of sense an issue for anyone who just plain enjoys the consumption of information.

Online booksellers are able to offer prices far more competitive than your small local shops. What was once bread-and-butter sustenance for the neighborhood bookshop—the New York Times bestseller list, textbooks, etc.—is suddenly less reliable as now the competition can offer these things at deeper discounts, afford losses, provide free shipping, and so on. Their losses can be recouped in grocery sales, or whatever else.

It’s not exactly news and at first this didn’t seem so scary for the little guys, but as a new generation is raised not knowing a world without tablets, downloads, or creepy "suggested purchase" menus, breathing room for the local bookshop is constricting. In this, the neighborhood loses. Learning without the human element or the tactile element is beginning to disappear, and rather than a local fixture tuned to the wants and needs of the people surrounding it, there will be only a machine programmed to provide instant gratification and produce revenue. It’s a dystopian scenario played out in so much of its own product it’s frightening.

For now, the sci-fi doom scenario isn’t set in stone. Just shy of its 50th birthday, Maple Street Bookshop may be undergoing a lot of change as anything that weathers old age must, but right now authors and poets still come to entertain, new titles still show up on the shelves, and a precious few still remain to dial you in to your next good read. Wine and cheese and hummus and cookies, the Maple Street Bookshop event staples, will certainly be served until the bitter end.

Let’s just hope that’s far, far away. Another 50. It’s hard to imagine Uptown New Orleans without the place. A place to browse, relax, and, most importantly, communicate. Right now that’s still a choice, though. Our choice. Let's make the one that’s good for us.

This article by Clark Allen is reposted from Press Street: Room 220, a content partner of NolaVie.