I’ve been thinking about the whole concept of America being “great,” and wondering what it is, exactly, for which Americans are nostalgic, and what it is about the present that is so frightening for so many people.
We know that economic uncertainty creates a backlash against those we perceive as threatening to our well-being. But I don’t think we are actually a nation of mostly racists and bigots and misogynists. They exist but they are the minority. I think we are just very un-self-aware.
We are the ones who have eroded our greatness and our own lives. We allowed our cities and towns to become husks of themselves in the ’80s and ’90s by embracing big-box corporate shopping experiences, and then online shopping, and separating the idea of our community from our economic activity, as if they are independent of one another, as if we can live in a town but shop in a mall and in cyber-space, and expect that town to be a nice place to be. There are other factors too, about which I understand very little. But this is one thing I am beginning to understand.
Running a bookstore or any small business is a huge challenge but it is immensely satisfying. As I am behind the counter and helping my customers day in and day out, I am learning that the reason this is so satisfying is because people are interacting with each other. Even the simplest transaction, such as the sale of a New York Times, is an opportunity for human connection, a moment to repair a thread of our torn social fabric. It doesn’t have to even consist of meaningful conversation. Just a moment to say “good morning,” and “see you tomorrow,” and “phew, it’s wet out there, huh?” is enough. But not enough of us get to enjoy these moments. Add in a minute or two to talk with me or another customer about something that you read recently, and suddenly, our day, our lives, have meaning. We can reclaim our missing “greatness” in those moments, every day.
This is the America that we are missing. It’s the one where you know your pharmacist, your bookseller, your farmer, your grocer, and the cook preparing your lunch in your favorite cafe. And this is not something that has to be lost to us forever, or that is in the power of any one politician to fix. This is something we can all fix for ourselves.
Carol Spurling, owner of BookPeople of Moscow in Moscow, ID, wrote this piece to fellow booksellers on November 2.