Sunday, December 28, 2008

Spoonbill & Sugartown Bookstore

1. I like Spoonbill, I do -- I like being in it, I like browsing the store, and I enjoy buying books there. I will continue to patronize them in the future. The only problem, as I see it, is that they have like fifty books total in their store. I probably have more books in my apartment than they have in their store. This makes it impossible to browse for more than five or ten minutes. There's simply no comparison between Spoonbill and larger stores like McNally Jackson, Housing Works, or BookCourt -- all of which, unlike for instance the Strand, maintain an intimate bookstore atmosphere while managing to offer a much greater depth and variety of books. I find the paucity of books at Spoonbill to be a limiting factor in my enjoyment of the store.

2. To the charge that Spoonbill has a paucity of books, Marina counters, "But all their books are good." This is true. The books on sale at Spoonbill tend to form a sort of exquisite trove. Every one has been selected with care, and although my "browsing" is negatively impacted by the paucity of books, it is also positively affected by the high frequency of congenial books hit upon. Indeed, there's an economic rationale for the "exquisite" quality of Spoonbill's stock: the work of long discernment and careful selection done by the bookstore constitutes one of the forms in which it adds value to the books on sale. Their browsing obviates mine. Spoonbill itself seems to recognize this. Its website boasts, "the most significant factor here is the element of serendipity: you never know what you might find." Clearly, they take a great deal of care in deciding what will appear in their store. To this end, therefore, one could classify Spoonbill as a sort of book-boutique which sells both books difficult to obtain elsewhere and more "high-quality" (as interpreted by the reading demographic Spoonbill serves) books than easily found elsewhere. This is clearly a desirable function to perform.

3. On the other hand, by assembling the perfect trove of books ahead of time -- so rare, authentic, balanced, well-researched, well-seasoned, etc. -- I think Spoonbill risks falling into one of the pathologies of Williamsburg and "hipster" culture as a whole, which is, while claiming to uphold values like authenticity, uniqueness, and the forgotten charms of cultural praeterita, all in contradistinction to "pre-fab" mass pop style, to nevertheless fall prey to a form of market submission as it congeals around "alternative" venues, stores, goods, or even looks. By obviating and expediting the work of browsing, Spoonbill destroys its spontaneity and life. If every book Spoonbill offers is "collectible," then so much the worse for book collections, which have always existed as mirrors of the specific idiosyncrasies and interests of the collector, the nooks and grottoes of their personalities, the values Lichtenberg purported to behold in one's mistress, "weaknesses and dreams" -- and not the neighborhood bookstore he or she happened to frequent. The lifelong career of book-pursuer evolves two products, each the dialectical obverse of the other, the collecting self and the collection itself. If the second is handed over as a fait accompli, then the development of the first is aborted in ovo. Indeed, considered in this way, what is the very "serendipity" of Spoonbill's book-collection but mass market irrationalism sub specie alternitatis?

4. In this light, my original complaint of the paucity of books seems vindicated. In order to preserve the spontaneity and life pursuant to book-browsing -- and by extension the well-developed collector and well-rounded collection -- a bookstore must offer enough space in which to lose oneself and find oneself again/anew. The exquisiteness of the trove on display is immaterial if this basic condition is not met, and indeed, so I maintain, the paucity of books at Spoonbill will always be a limiting factor of my enjoyment.


  1. An observation: were you unaware of a book's provenance, and judged it only on its merits, it would appear (caveat lector; I have no idea what this Spoonbill is beyond this post) that a Spoonbill book is of value.

    A response: I too, in something I intend to be personal, abhor the feeling of being marketed to. Except when the purpose of a thing is its marketing (i.e., buying a brand). I doubt I would like Spoonbill either. That, of course, simply means I'm susceptible to marketing of a different kind, but so be it.

    A suggestion: Don't go there to build a collection. Go there as one might suppose a casual reader might go to an airport bookstore. The goal is simply and precisely to buy a book which one reads profitably, where the profit is, instead of time passed on the beach, reading a book of value. If your sense of having corrupted your collection is sufficiently strong that you can't bear your purchase's purchase on the shelf, engage in that quintessential act of literacy; pass the book on.

  2. I mean, I "like" Spoonbill, and I'll shop there in the future (it's a good bookstore!). I'm certainly not worried about "corrupting" my collection. I just find that my enjoyment is limited by the paucity of books on sale, and I don't find the exquisiteness of these books to be a sufficient counterweight to their paucity for the reasons described.

  3. Ah, ok, I misread and thought you meant you wouldn't shop there, whereas you seem to be doing the obviously right thing, which is not to browse there.