John Bohn: Give old-fashioned local bookstores a try

By John Bohn, Daily Community Culture Columnist
Published March 14, 2013

The first book I ever bought at Dawn Treader was “Dostoevsky” by Nicholas Berdyaev. When I found it, or rather when it found me, I had never even heard of Berdyaev, but I couldn’t be happier. During my senior year of high school, I took a lot of interest in Dostoevsky. His existential treatment of Christianity served to guide me through what was then my vague, liberal Protestantism. In “Dostoevsky,” Berdyaev articulated what he thought were the main themes of Dostoevsky’s work, and I consumed the book quickly.

Unlike many, that was how I spent my freshman year’s welcome week. I don’t know exactly how I would view the book and its ideas today — I have yet to reread it — but what I won’t ever forget was that rush of excitement I experienced when I thought I had found the book I needed to be reading at this time in my life.

I love browsing bookstores. The prospect of finding what you didn’t set out to find, of coming across the unexpected, provides me with a secret thrill. This past summer, I experienced that rush of excitement again. I sat down in one of the chairs at Dawn Treader, and when I looked in front of me at the shelf, there sat “The Rise of Eurocentrism: Anatomy of Interpretation” by Vassilis Lambropoulos, a professor at the University. I don’t know why this book was there (especially a practically new hardcover copy), but it was. For many reasons, it seemed as if this was the book I needed to read. I hadn’t heard of it, nor had I ever really looked at that shelf before, the one where general history meets conspiracy theory books.

At the time, I didn’t have the sufficient background to fully understand what it discussed, and while I probably still won’t understand all the references ranging from the Reformation to Derrida, that excitement rushed over me. Having just come out of a course on Samuel Beckett, and in a crisis over the question of interpretation, this booked seemed to offer some light.

Obviously, there are plenty of other opportunities by which I could have attempted to reconcile my anxieties about interpretation; feel free to write me off as a mystic for defending this one. There’s definitely room for that interpretation. Or call it a gambler’s addiction, if you fancy. Nevertheless, I cherish the experience of walking into an old bookstore and letting my mind wander. For this reason, I find myself sensitive to the possibility of losing this experience.

Businesses come and go in Ann Arbor; every student has a different memory of the city. The welcoming signs of old State Street businesses hung overhead my Freshman year while construction workers busily reminded us that things were changing. During my experiences in Ann Arbor, bookstores seem to have been most affected. I never got a chance to check out the famous Shaman Drum; I only ever saw the sign hanging above the door leading into its gutted-out insides. Borders and Dave’s Books, two bookstores close to campus, closed within my first year in Ann Arbor. These places I went to during my freshman year no longer existed by the end.

So I’m a mystic, and now you have the opportunity to call me a luddite or a cultural conservative after the following: Part of me laments what the Internet has done to browsing culture. Looming in the background, the cheaper alternative of Amazon ruins the browsing culture experience. Now I buy books because I’ve been told I need them. Chance encounters with new knowledge no longer slip through the cracks; my life and my readings now all have a purpose and isn’t it wonderful?

Certainly Amazon and other sites have chipped away at these bookstore’s profits. No one would deny that. I don’t know if this column makes a good enough case, but I really encourage those reading to look at next semester’s reading lists and head over to Dawn Treader, West End Books and Common Language among others and see if they have the book you need. Who knows — they might! And I make this argument especially today because we have coming to our community a new bookstore, Literati. True, the bookstore sits a little bit off campus, but the trek out there would really make a difference.

And even if you don’t have a particular book in mind, check it out anyway. You’ll never know what you didn’t know unless you step in and see.