Few institutions are as Jeffersonian as the bookstore. In a letter to John Adams late in life, Jefferson said, "I cannot live without books." Although he distrusted large cities, Jefferson haunted the bookstores of Paris and Philadelphia, eventually accumulating what may have been the largest private library in the New World. A visit to a bookstore is a Jeffersonian act.
A good bookstore, however, is more than just a place to buy books. A good bookstore provides a meeting place for the community, where groups of people can come together to discuss anything from politics to gardening. It hosts authors, known and unknown, for book-signings and readings. It provides assistance to struggling local writers by giving them preferential treatment on the shelves. A good bookstore a pillar of any local community.
There are many bookstores across America whose connection with their community has become famous. There is City Lights in San Francisco, Tattered Cover in Denver, BookPeople in Austin, Strand Bookstore in New York, and hundreds of others. These independent stores glow with literary culture, and they are places where Jefferson would have been right at home.
Unfortunately, for the past several years, independent bookstores have been fighting a battle for survival against the corporate chain bookstore giants, Borders and Barnes and Noble. Able to draw on unrivaled financial resources, these two corporations have opened thousands of bookstores across the country, often strategically choosing store locations with the deliberate intention of driving nearby independent bookstores out of business. Across the country, hundreds of independent bookstores have been driven out of business over the last few decades. Every time one is forced to close, a little bit of the Jeffersonian fire is extinguished.
In contrast to independent bookstores, the chain bookstores are fairly bland and lifeless. Each store looks more or less identical to every other store, with no local uniqueness in their character. There is little real interaction between a chain bookstore and the local community, as the activities at a chain bookstore must be approved by some corporate bureaucrat higher up in the organization. Books by local authors are not highlighted in any way, as the choice of merchandise for sale was decided in a corporate office far removed from the community. Everything is geared merely towards maximizing sales; even the music played at a corporate bookstore is designed only to advertise the record in question, rather than provide pleasure to the customers.
In the early 21st Century, the greatest threat to the freedom of the American people does not come from a foreign enemy, but rather from the gradual sapping of what Jefferson called "the sacred fire." One element of this is the encroachment of corporate standardization on pillars of our communities like independent bookstores and, for that matter, independent coffee houses, restaurants, and other types of stores. We need to vote with our dollars by shopping only at independent bookstores, shunning those corporate establishments that would destroy these citadels of Jeffersonianism if they could.