06 November 2009

Paperback Dreams

Paperback Dreams A Sad, but True Documentary
By Kristin Battestella

I don’t always review documentaries, even though I actually watch nothing but non-fiction programming on live TV. Fortunately, I discovered the PBS special Paperback Dreams late last year. Each time I see it on my guide channel, my first reaction is, ‘Geez, Paperback Dreams is on again?’ Yet I find myself watching the hour-long tribute to the independent bookstore every chance I get.

Paperback Dreams follows two San Francisco area independent bookstores-Kepler’s and Cody’s- from the height of the free thinking bookstore during the Civil Rights Movement to the ongoing decline of the independents and the book industry as a whole against the internet and other media. Kepler’s Books and Magazines hangs on in the shrinking independent market; but unfortunately after 52 years, Cody’s Books closed in 2008.

With archive photographs and interviews from shop owners past and present, Director Alex Beckstead (Trailer Park Blues) creates a complete picture of the film’s subtitle ‘The Rise and Fall of the Independent Bookstore’. Long before our current recession and the bleak numbers for major publishing houses and big chain bookstores like Barnes and Noble and Borders, the Independent Bookseller has struggled to stay afloat. Some of Paperback Dreams is a little too yuppie, focusing on the sixties heyday of California campuses like Berkley and Stanford, but it’s also tragic to see the American Dream collapse amid new technologies and a lack of interest in books.

Paperback Dreams introduces us to Kepler’s and Cody’s when the franchises were young, edgy, and at the heart of Free Speech Movement. College students gathered at the landmark shops, took a stand on what they believed in, and made their generation something better for it. Move up forty years and we meet Clark Kepler and Andy Ross. Over the documentary’s two-year timeframe, we see these book businessmen loose their dreams. Drastic changes in store styles-from selling more than just books and coffee to competing with online booksellers and computerizing inventories have only put a band-aid on the bleeding. Though bittersweet, Paperback Dreams also has an irony about itself. When customers flocked to the going out of business sales claiming they shopped at Cody’s all the time, owner Andy Ross glibly commented that if it were true for everyone who said it, the store wouldn’t be going out of business.

Though it’s a critical look at the plight of the Independent seller, Paperback Dreams raises the alarm for all types of bookstores. In such an educated, literate, and freethinking country, why are book businesses unable to survive? Even with increasing online options for shopping, ebooks, and web reading, won’t there always be a need for bookstores? For better or worse, maybe books as we know them will disappear, become relics and antiques someday. With increased ebook sales and handheld options, it is only a matter of time. However, the book isn’t going the way of the typewriter, eight track, or black and white television that soon.

What’s more frightening is the thought that the book-buying niche is so small that bookstores have over reached their audience. Maybe we aren’t such a literate and educated country after all. I come from the largest area city in Southern New Jersey, and there is currently no bookstore within the city limits. The nearest bookstore is an independent shop one city over. It survives because of its unique placement in the Glasstown Arts District-a community of shops and galleries catering to the artistic and intellectual individual. Where are the books for the masses? I also come from a large Spanish-speaking enclave. Instead of a count ‘em third Wal-Mart, why can’t an all Spanish Borders Express come to town? It doesn’t seem that ‘if you build it, they will come’ applies to bookstores. Why can the Mecca of art and education at the Independent Bookstore not survive in modern corporate America?

I’ve meandered a bit, of course, but Paperback Dreams is the kind of documentary that gets one thinking on such things. The film made a splash at the 2008 BookExpo America, but even the book festival community has shrunk since then. Many book shows have been significantly reduced or cancelled all together. It’s as if there aren’t even any viewers for a show about bookstores, either. I don’t understand why books are slipping against television, video games, and other such media. You can watch a crappy movie and learn nothing, waste countless hours on an infinite game or website, but even a bad book has value. There is such a thing as a bad book, but there’s no such thing as a bad reading. Even after struggling through the most awful story or poorly written books, you’ve gained an education and experience that cannot be replaced.

When the bookstore nearest you closes, what will replace it? Another material store or a parking lot perhaps; unfortunately, what are the odds that something better than a book store will come along: schools, shelters, affordable housing? Paperback Dreams leaves the viewer with an utterly empty feeling, as if something great and majestic has become extinct and will never be had again.

Paperback DreamsSponsored in part by the KQED PBS station in San Francisco, Paperback Dreams can be seen on several public stations across the country. You can check your local PBS website or visit paperbackdreams.com for upcoming airings or screenings and appearances. The DVD is also available at several online retailers. Teachers and students interested in the history of paperbacks and Free Speech will definitely enjoy Paperback Dreams, as will all bibliophiles. I imagine California locals will feel an extra bittersweet when seeing places they know and love onscreen, but Paperback Dreams has all American appeal. So watch, treasure, and be kind to your local bookstore. Someday, it may not be there, and that’s a damn shame.

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