The possibility of using drones to probe the private lives of the American people — someday soon there will no doubt be drones small as gnats, able to monitor our conversations or visually record our lives — leaves me equally cold.
Yet Amazon’s recent announcement that the company may soon employ drones to deliver goods to Americans has caused a shift in my opinion. (The increased use of drones for such tasks isn’t just a dream anymore. Like driverless automobiles or monitoring chips embedded in the skin of those with health problems, these developments are just around the corner.) Although Amazon ships out items ranging from shoes to shampoo, the company is best known for selling books, and for me there is something intoxicating in the thought of books flying all across America, Anna Karenina zipping to some flat in Brooklyn, The Velveteen Rabbit whizzing off to a ranch in New Mexico, Romeo and Juliet dropping out of the skies in Western North Carolina. In my imagination I see whole fleets of drones dashing across the skies of our mountains, dropping books at the homes of those starved for literature, those who still appreciate words on a page as well as words on various electronic devices. For me, as I say, slapping Plato, Chaucer, or Alice Walker into a drone and jetting them to the front door brings a grin of sheer delight.
What also brings a smile about the Amazon drones is the incongruity of tiny aircraft carrying paper and ink books. The union of old and new is attractive, of course, but what is deliciously ironic is that we already have instant access to books through our electronic devices. Readers with a Nook or Kindle or iPad can pull up books with a few clicks of a button. Nonetheless, and despite prognostications to the contrary, we readers still keep a place in our hearts for the traditional book, that rectangular object we can hold in our hands, tuck under our pillows, mark with a pen, dot with driblets of chicken soup or suntan oil. It seems that the traditional book still has a way to go before being buried by electronic devices.
Which brings us, by a very roundabout path, to the topic of books and the holidays.
Many of us, as I say, still enjoy reading books in their traditional form, which we can order from Amazon or similar companies. There are advantages in making these purchases online: ordering is easy and quick and can be done from the comfort of our homes, and even the droneless book arrives speedily on our doorstep. All well and good.
But this holiday season I want to encourage all buyers of print books to shop for those traditional books in a traditional place, which is, of course, a bookshop.
There are many reasons for going to your local bookstore. For one thing, you can’t really browse books on Amazon the same way you can in a store. This browsing and the accompanying surprises — a book on our mountains you’ve never seen, an obscure novel whose first pages have you frozen in place reading, a coffee-table book on woodworking perfect for putting under the Christmas tree with Uncle Charlie’s name on it — bring great pleasures to bibliophiles.
Furthermore, purchasing books in a local bookshop constitutes a gift to you and your fellow citizens. “Buy local” is the trumpet call in regard to community-produced foods, but it should apply to all of our shops, especially independent bookstores, which usually operate on a shoestring made up of dreams. (Whatever their backgrounds, bookshop owners and employees are romantics.) Shop in your community, and the money generally stays in your community. Shop online, and the money goes into a corporation that generally doesn’t care a fig about community.
Finally, there are the stores themselves. If you haven’t visited some of the bookshops in this area, you’re in for a treat. There’s City Lights Bookstore and Café in Sylva, for example, which in addition to its fine selection of books, has for years supported writers and writing through readings and book signings. In Waynesville, you’ll discover Blue Ridge Books, which features a wonderful coffee bar, a splendid collection of books, and an enormous room given over to sofas and tables for reading or writing. In Asheville, there’s the Battery Park Book Exchange and Champagne Bar, a two-story shop serving coffee, champagne, and wine that has become one of the hot spots in the downtown, particularly on the weekends.
Places like these deserve our support because they have earned it. Shop online when necessary, but try to get out this holiday season and visit one of these magical kingdoms.
I still like the idea of Dickens on a drone, but I like the idea of a local bookshop even more.