Beautiful Joe

“My name is Beautiful Joe, and I am a brown dog of medium size. I am not called Beautiful Joe because I am a beauty.”

That’s the opening of the first book I ever bought: Beautiful Joe. Marshall Saunders’ overly sentimental 19th-century novel, written in the style of Black Beauty, also shared the anti-cruelty, animal-rights agenda expressed in Anna Sewell’s better-known horse novel.

I was six, with a dollar to spend at the M&I (gone long before I reached my teens, it was a sort-of small town, independent Woolworths). It took all but a nickel of my stash. My mother, accustomed to spending a quarter on children’s books, was appalled.

Forty-one years and an outrageous amount in student loans later, my mother is still appalled at how much I spend on books. My partner and I used to drop $50 or more every Saturday at Big Table Books in Ames, Iowa, before toting our books to the café next door for a leisurely brunch.

After we finished graduate school and left town, the bookstore closed. It wasn’t because we’d moved on, as the former manager of Big Table suggested.

It was the new Borders in the strip mall next to the Kmart.

Expansion into college-town markets by the big-box bookstores has had a devastating impact on independent bookstores, as Ralph Brave details in this week’s feature story. Combined with Internet book sales, it’s like a one-two combination. The question of whether independent bookstores are merely staggering or down for the count still is unanswered.

But the experience of the independent store is irreplaceable. Yes, Borders smells like books and you can browse, but the rare delight in the unexpected—who knew I’d find neuropsychology interesting until I’d read Descartes’ Error?—is missing amid the big piles o’ Da Vinci something-or-other.

And on those happy Fridays when I’m paid, my partner and I still find an excuse to head for a Midtown independent bookstore, spend a few bucks, then read interesting snippets of whatever we’ve found aloud to each other over a leisurely dinner.