Joseph Bast | May 4, 2023

I just wrote a little news story titled “College Avenue Bookstore Offers Books by Conservative and Libertarian Authors.” In this age of declining literacy and woke censorship, the title invites comparison to “man bites dog.” It hardly ever happens.

People older than, say, 50 years old may remember when used book stores were intellectually exciting and challenging places. They often had large, dusty, and dimly lit collections displayed on bookcases so tall that customers and staff needed ladders to reach the top shelves.

There were so many books they were sometimes double-shelved… you had to remove books from the front row to see what treasures were hidden behind them. The books were so tightly packed that shelves bowed under their weight.

Bookstores were often housed in older buildings with tin ceilings and squeaky wood floors. Bathrooms were tiny and just an afterthought. The men and women behind the counters were older, with a scholarly cast, and didn’t seem to want to be interrupted. Actually selling books didn’t seem to be a high priority. They seemed to know where every book in the store was located and to have even read many of them.

In those olden days, the collections were eclectic and idiosyncratic because they reflected the diverse interests and beliefs of the people who came to the stores with books to sell. The collection was not curated, as in the case of a library, but a genuinely spontaneous order, the result of luck and chance and human choices but not of human planning.

For autodidacts, bookstores were holy places. You came there to learn about everything from religion to fiction, history to art, philosophy to science, and even a little pornography. The history of human thought was right there, on shelves, unfiltered by teachers or librarians, available for purchase for just a fraction of the price on the cover.  

Some of the books were new but most, and all the really interesting ones, were decades old and often out of print. Obscure philosophers, long-dead economists, histories of the Civil War; a veritable smorgasbord of knowledge just waiting to be touched, opened, and read.

But bookstores today bear little resemblance to those of old. Today’s bookstores are brightly lit, half or more of the space is devoted to children’s books and games (complete with miniature chairs and tables and stuffed animals), and the “adult” part of the store is devoted almost entirely to fiction.

What nonfiction you can still find in a modern bookstore is mostly newer titles on pop psychology and self-help, books on “spirituality” and “leadership,” biographies of modern and recent celebrities, and books on the latest academic fads: socialism, race, “equity,” and the “existential threat of global warming.” The selection is small and the dust jackets are shiny and brightly colored.

We know why this happened. Fewer and fewer people read books or are even capable of reading books. Amazon and other online booksellers made even the hardest-to-find books available with a single keystroke. Liberals saw an opportunity to erase a big part of American and global intellectual history by simply tossing books by conservative and libertarian authors into dumpsters. Few people noticed, no one complained.

The idea of “adopting” a bookcase in a bookstore and stocking it with books by conservative and libertarian authors, described in my news story, seems to be a new one. If it works, we may try it at bookstores in other cities. We may have found a way to keep the literature of liberty alive during the Modern Dark Ages, so that a future generation of readers can once again stumble upon it and discover a rich intellectual tradition.

Whatever Happened to Real Bookstores?