Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Encouragement from Books on the Common

For me a good place to live requires several elements – beyond safe neighborhoods, good schools, and a thriving business community – most people might not consider essential: a local newspaper intelligently informing the community, a Friendly Local Game Store (FLGS), organizations preserving local history, a public library offering programs for all ages and interests, and a supportive book store. I was fortunate to grow up in a town with a small but excellent independent bookstore that managed to survive 30 years despite economic downturns and the growth of digital media in today’s ever-changing Internet Age. The quiet encouragement the owners gave me in my formative years fueled my interest in fantasy and science fiction and helped inspire me to pursue my professional career in writing, editing, and game design.

I first became really interested in reading fantasy and science fiction back in high school. Sure, I’d read Tolkien’s The Hobbit and H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds, but my involvement with roleplaying games inspired me to explore the hobby’s literary origins. At the time my hometown of Ridgefield, CT, possessed two independent bookstores: Books Plus on Main Street and Books on the Common in a remote cluster of shops near the main Copps Hill Plaza stores. Each had a small bookshelf unit set aside for the then-meager selection of fantasy and science-fiction paperbacks available at the time.

In the summer of 1985 – right before my senior year of high school – I rode my bicycle into town once a week to Books on the Common to purchase a new novel to devour over the next few days. Back then most paperbacks cost $3.95, which worked out to a convenient $4 and a quarter with sales tax, an affordable weekly treat. Once I found a particular author I liked, I wanted to read all their books. Bob Silbernagel established Books on the Common with his wife in 1984 and ran it until his untimely death from cancer in 1991. I didn’t know his name at the time, but to me he was the friendly fellow behind the register who smiled when he quietly rang up my purchase. He didn’t mind me taking the time to browse titles, marvel at cover art, or read back-cover copy on numerous novels before settling on a single paperback for my week’s purchase. Before internet cookies, club cards, and lists of suggestions generated by market-driven algorithms (“Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought…”), Bob Silbernagel took the time to observe and care about what his regular customers bought. He quietly kept track of what books I bought and made sure he had both the continuing books in a series and other titles that might interest me in stock. When I began reading paperback editions of Michael Moorcock’s Elric saga and the other Eternal Champion books, he stocked every book in the series on those shelves. He made sure I could buy all the Larry Niven paperbacks to satisfy my hunger for his Long ARM of Gil Hamilton stories, the acclaimed Ringworld, and numerous Known Universe novels and short stories that still engage my imagination today. When I started reading David Eddings’ Belgariad he stocked all the books in the series so I could read them uninterrupted. He made sure the shelves remained stocked with every title that might possibly interest a teenager exploring his nascent and varied geeky interests.

Many people at the time encouraged me along my path of writing and game design, not the least of whom were my ever-supportive parents and several key high school teachers. Bob Silbernagel’s quiet encouragement – just making sure he provided inspiring fodder for my fantasy and science fiction reading – helped sustain and enrich my life as much as the more overt efforts.

The town of Ridgefield and Books on the Common have changed over those many years – I wouldn’t expect them to remain the same, other than in my nostalgic memories – but the store still stands as a cornerstone of what makes a good hometown. The store has since passed to new owners and found a new home, not tucked away in a development behind a shopping center but right on picturesque Main Street, Ridgefield (ironically enough, in the building where I got my first job, as a clerk at Bedient’s Home and Garden Center). We briefly visit it when making our annual pilgrimage to New England to visit family. I’ve found books on local history, my wife indulges in gardening fare, and my son’s even found a beloved Pete the Cat book.

The brick-and-mortar bookstore provides something digital venues cannot: the ability to freely browse a selection of books not tailored by one’s past purchase or internet history, but by the diverse offering stocked on the shelves by subject. If I hadn’t browsed the store’s local history shelves I would never have found Charles Pankenier’s Ridgefield Fights the Civil War, combining an interest in my hometown history with my growing urge to learn about my new current home, located amidst many battlefields of the “War of Northern Aggression,” as some locals still call it. On my last visit I’d hoped to purchase a copy of The Secrets of Wildflowers – by longtime Ridgefield Press executive editor Jack Sanders, with whom I briefly worked in the early 1990s – as a gift for my wife. When I asked the bookstore staffers if they had it in stock, they checked the computer and apologized that they had no copies on hand. But as I wandered the shelves, browsing at whatever subjects came into view, I happened into the gardening section and, lo and behold, one copy sat on the shelf. It didn’t stay there.

The debate on whether to buy books and games from friendly, local, brick-and-mortar stores or seek better bargains online continues raging. Some folks prefer one or the other, but savvy consumers keep both their financial concerns and their responsibility for the welfare of their geographical community in mind; they find a comfortable balance between shopping online and supporting their local businesses. Good game and book stores flourish and survive by offering more than just inventory for sale. They become community hubs for their clientele, providing a friendly gathering place to enjoy their hobby, interact with other enthusiasts, and expand their horizons with recommendations from helpful staffers. Books on the Common knew this right from the start. It provided an encouraging environment for a geeky teenager seeking to broaden his fantasy and science fiction literary horizons.


Want to share memories of your favorite book or game store? Offer feedback? Start a civilized discussion? Share a link to this blog entry on Google+ and tag me (+Peter Schweighofer) to comment.