It has not been a good year for the written word in Charleston. When I moved here nine years ago, there were five general-interest bookstores on the peninsula. Today there is one.
The latest casualty is Waldenbooks in Charleston Place Hotel. Waldenbooks is a subsidiary of the giant Borders bookstore chain, which closed its many doors last month. Waldenbooks is doing the same. I was never a big fan of Waldenbooks. It always seemed light-weight and junky — sort of the bookstore equivalent of fast food. But it was a bookstore in a world that needs more books and more people reading them. More importantly, the downtown Waldenbooks provided my friends and me with numerous opportunities over the years to sign and sell our books in a high-traffic environment, so it will always have a warm place in my heart.
Another favorite bookstore — this one independent and off the peninsula — closed in May. That was Ravenous Reader on Folly Road, owned by Pat Giacinto. Pat was my dealer. I had her number in my cellphone. When I needed a fix, if she didn't have it on the shelf, she could usually get it in three or four days.
Over the years I have had many friends who owned, managed, or worked in bookstores. All of them are doing something else now, in part because bookstores are becoming fewer by the day and because it is almost impossible to make a serious living in the retail book business. But the saddest part of watching my book-dealing friends is watching their stores go out of business. I have witnessed the obsequies over several of them through the years.
Of course, when a bookstore dies, there is a lot of stock to be liquidated. For bibliophiles that means opportunity, but plucking titles from a dying store feels vaguely predatory. My bookstore friends encourage me to buy as much as I can and come back when the prices are lower in a few days and buy some more. And usually I do. I paid Pat Giacinto a last visit and came away with several books, and I have already dropped into Waldenbooks to see what they have left and make a couple of quick buys. But there is always that twinge of guilt and regret. Maybe if I had bought more books all along, these noble creatures would not be shuttering their stores and finding themselves wrenched from their garden.
I have no doubt that in a few more years we will be doing our reading from electronic gadgets. Not only is it more convenient than going to the bookstore, but it's cheaper — a lot cheaper — to buy some electrons in your Kindle or Nook than to purchase a stack of inked paper between two covers. But one thing these gadgets will never do is bring people together the way a bookstore does. When I encounter someone in the aisles of a bookstore — anyone — I know they are special. They are kindred souls. They are members of a small and dwindling convocation of beings willing to exert the mental labor that it takes to convert the written word to ideas and images in the mind. They are not satisfied with being passively fed their information and entertainment. To be among these people in a big room full of books gives me the same feeling others get from attending high mass. The Kindle will never unite people in such passion and devotion.
"Book readers are the best in the world," Pat Giacinto told Post and Courier columnist Ken Burger on the last official day of the Ravenous Reader. And that brings me to another lament about the state of the written word in the Holy City: Burger turned in his last column and rode off into the sunset on July 24.
Reading Burger's work — both as a sports columnist and a metro columnist — has been one of the great pleasures of my time in Charleston. Not only was he able to spin poetry out of the most mundane things in life — shoes, haircuts, driving to work — but he had the courage to write about his battles with alcohol and prostate cancer and his good fortune to survive both.
Burger was the foremost journalist of his generation to practice in South Carolina newsrooms. Others have left the state for the Big City and won Pulitzers and other distinctions. But Burger kept his Palmetto State address, never far from his Allendale County hometown. As a beat reporter, Washington correspondent, sports writer, and four-day-a-week metro columnist, he enriched the culture and the mind of South Carolina. Sad to say, his exit from the P&C gives us all one less reason to read.