In an age of digital economies and impersonal conveniences, giants like Amazon threaten to suffocate small independent bookstores and, perhaps, erode the sense of community these neighborhood businesses help to foster. Writer and filmmaker Mason Engel aims to sway viewers back towards their local booksellers with a new documentary called “The Bookstour“. The film showcases Engel exploring America’s indie bookstores and how the owners maneuver through the ups and downs of running them.
The East Coast tour, and Engel’s opportunity to make his documentary, almost fell apart due to the COVID-19 pandemic and one of the most destructive Atlantic hurricane seasons on record. Undaunted, Engel decided it was “the perfect time to take the trip,” to capture the real experiences of booksellers in such a challenging moment. Engel joined “City Lights” host Lois Reitzes along with Janet Geddis, founder and owner of Avid Bookshop in Athens, GA. Both guests shared their thoughts on the current state of affairs for indie booksellers, the timeless appeal of printed words and the themes of community explored in “The Bookstour“.
On Engel’s own concessions to corporate giants, inspiring the journey of “The Bookstour”:
“I had self-published a novel through Amazon in 2017, and … my sales had pretty much plateaued,” Engel said. “I had this idea to travel the country and give away copies of my book to independent bookstores … I was approaching a bookstore called The Raven in Lawrence, Kansas, and as I was approaching the shop, in the front window I saw a little homemade pamphlet, a zine, entitled ‘How To Resist Amazon, and Why.’” He went on, “It registered what I was doing, for the first time. I was traveling around and asking booksellers to promote a product that was available only through their direct competitor … That hadn’t clicked for me.”
“I finished that trip and I resolved to take a second trip that was not about me, or self-promotion, but about investigating this industry and these people, and that’s what resulted in ‘The Bookstour.’”
On the passion for community that inspired a bookstore owner:
“If I opened my own independent bookstore, I not only could serve my Athens community, but … I could use my Athens connections to foster a love of reading, and at the core of all of that was this strong desire to have people feel more connected with their inner lives, and with each other,” Geddis said. “In my opinion, there’s nothing better than a book to be able to facilitate those kinds of conversations with yourself, and those conversations with people—including people that you might not ever run into, if it weren’t for a place like a neighborhood bookstore.”
“I think people, of course, are attracted to technology. It’s appealing, it’s designed to be addictive—and I am not an anti-tech person in the least,” Geddis said. “But the response to that digital distancing that people started to feel, the yearning we had for connection, to maybe run into our neighbors in the shop and be able to spark up spontaneous conversation, all of those things tied into my reasons for wanting to open a bookstore, and also the reasons why the Athens community, they responded with such strong support to the bookstore itself.”
Booksellers not just in it for love, but for a living:
“When I asked [booksellers] why they kept getting up in the morning and kept being excited to sell books, the answer was never, ‘Oh, I think I’m going to break my sales record for this quarter.’ It was, because maybe today there’s someone out there who, if given the right book at the right time, will be changed, will be inspired, will be saved. And that’s what many booksellers have experienced themselves,” Engel said.
“It is true that I’m doing it for love. It is also true … that I need the money, and that we aren’t able to do any of the good work we do without the money,” Geddis added. “I think the onus has been put on the independent business owners, and on individual consumers. These two groups of people — ‘It’s up to you to save the independent economies where you live.’ But that distracts us from the fact that governments large and small are giving billions of dollars of incentives to chains, but particularly to Amazon, so the playing field is not level at all.”
“The Bookstour“ will be available to stream on July 29.