The morning after Halloween is admittedly a strange time in Salem, Massachusetts. Last night’s crowd of a hundred thousand has cleared out, leaving just small reminders that they were here at all: a lone black knit glove with a white skeleton applique lying in the middle of Essex Street, sad looking pumpkins on doorsteps. On Salem Common, two park & rec guys are cleaning up last night’s mess.
The Halloween season turns Salem into a town of ghosts, but it is the morning of November 1st when Salem becomes a ghost town. This year there is a very real ghost in our midst: Cornerstone Books has died.
As deaths go, we’ve had a few in the family in the last couple of months, so I am probably a bit more maudlin than usual. When I heard that Cornerstone was closing, I broke down with as much sadness as I usually reserve for my nearest and dearest. At the time, my reaction surprised me, but, in retrospect, it shouldn’t have. Cornerstone has come to mean a great deal to me over the last few years. Not only was it my neighborhood bookstore, it was a place I went to visit friends.
When I wrote The Lace Reader, it was my friends at Cornerstone who passed the word, teaming up with The House of The Seven Gables to host an extraordinary book launch. The same happened when The Map of True Places came out, that first night’s celebration of a Salem book could only have been hosted by Salem’s finest. Over the last few years, they have hosted out of town book clubs for me, introduced me to our local chapter of Red Hatters, and been the sponsors of Salem’s own Book Festival. Since my writing career began, I have made more appearances at Cornerstone than anywhere else in the world, and they’ve sold more of my books than any other individual store in the country. There was one week when The Lace Reader outsold the new Harry Potter release, and I’m certain that could have only happened because they were hand selling the heck out of my novel.
Cornerstone was the ideal neighborhood bookshop, as evidenced by the fact that they have won “Best Bookstore of the North Shore,” more than a few times. In towns or cities too small to house art galleries, the local bookstore is often not only a place to stop in to find a book you’ll love but also a sort of cultural center. They are likely to host a show for a local artist, or an evening of music, and they always know what’s going on in the community, not just in the arts, but in most areas. It’s certainly the place to meet an emerging author on a first tour or an old favorite who’s doing a signing.
As a relatively new author who has been on tour only three times, I found that it was almost always the indies who hosted my tour events and introduced me to a new community of readers who trusted their recommendations enough to show up to listen to an unknown. With so many local bookstores closing, where will writers go for such help? It is a sad fact that many of the independents (and even some of the chains) are having to close their doors at a time when their obstacles include not only e-readers and online sales but a crippled economy that has slowed the purchase of most hardcover books with the exception of those written by our superstars. With the buy-local movement just beginning to catch on, it is too little too late for many stores.
I have nothing against online sales. I happily own a Kindle, which I find great for traveling. But the sense of community that the independent bookstore fosters is not something that can be recreated online, and, unless you are one of those writing superstars or your book has some kind of publicity hook, I think it will become increasingly difficult for a new writer to stand out from the pack.
For the last few months, I have been part of a group of Salemites trying to save our beloved Cornerstone. We’ve explored many ideas: creating a co-op bookstore, launching a social arts center in combination with a local coffee place, starting a book store/public book club that charges admission to its members, hosts authors, and serves wine. For one reason or another, those ideas have not been viable. With the deadline looming, no one could come up with a definitive plan fast enough to keep the store alive.
And so, on Halloween night, Gil Pili, Cornerstone’s creator and visionary, closed the doors, locked up, and put his inventory of books in storage in hopes that someone will come along who has always wanted to own and run a bookstore.
So I wanted to ask other writers for their ideas. How would you revamp a struggling local bookstore, what would make you and the rest of your community go there to shop? What do we have to do to keep these local treasures alive and thriving?
We all entertain hopes of a miracle, that someone will come along and reopen Cornerstone. We promise to do a better job supporting them. For my part, I will vow to buy more books than ever, to always shop locally, and never again to subscribe to the naïve belief that, regardless of circumstances, good things will last forever.