Don Cunningham: Of Books, Bookstores, and Economic Change

By Colin McEvoy on June 13, 2018

This column, written by LVEDC President and CEO Don Cunningham, originally appeared in The Morning Call and on the newspaper’s website on June 12, 2018. (Click here to read Cunningham’s previous columns.)

Don Cunningham

Don Cunningham

Books and bookstores are my catnip.

I can’t walk by a bookshelf without stopping to examine it. I can’t visit a new city or walk a downtown without seeking out a bookshop, if one exists.

I have more books than I need but I always need more books.

I’m not sure what’s in catnip – I don’t have a cat – but without a doubt it’s also in book jackets.

We had a cat once when I was in high school, the kitten of a very fertile barn cat that lived on my grandparent’s property. The kittens became so plentiful that if you visited my grandparents you left with a cat.

One of the barn cat’s offspring became our basement cat. The basement was connected to a garage where my dad, a bona fide “car guy” – a genetic trait not passed to me – kept his beloved sports car.

Upon reaching the age of maturity, the cat “went into heat” with an intensity that clearly ran in its family. The poor creature – living in a cat-less neighborhood – developed an affinity for the retractable antennae on the back of my dad’s 280Z.

Needless to say, my dad loved the sports car more than the cat, therefore, little Smokey found a much happier place to live, we were told, somewhere “on a nice farm.” She was the last cat in my life.

Books have remained.

The love began in grade school. Each week, my mom would take me to the Bethlehem Public Library. I’d borrow as many books as my library card would allow. Back then, we didn’t buy books, just borrowed them.

I still remember the feeling of those library books stacked high on my nightstand – biographies of sports heroes, histories of civil war battles, the latest Guinness Book of World Records – and trying to decide what to read first.

My real book addiction started in college when I discovered used bookstores – and the magic of owning books. For two or three bucks, I could buy my own, mark it up, underline in it, write in the margins.

Books became my windows to a new world. My own classroom that I could take anywhere I went. They transformed me to different times and places, opened my mind to new ideas, thoughts and perspectives.

When I returned to Bethlehem, many of those new perspectives and ideas I developed during college and graduate school were about as appealing to my steelworker dad as the basement cat’s nightly mounting of his 280Z.

Ah, yes, books can be a bit dangerous.

With my first real job came the ability to buy new books. No more musty basement smells, yellow highlighter marks or decade old coffee stains.

It was then that I discovered my city’s gift to the world, the Moravian Book Shop, America’s oldest, longest continuously running bookshop. Since then, the places that house books are nearly mystical to me, a kind of sacred ground.

If the Bethlehem Public Library was the site of my book baptism, my confirmation into the full community of not only loving books but also loving their sanctuaries took place at the Moravian Book Shop.

My hometown independent bookstore has been in the news recently. Owned and operated by the Moravian Church since its opening in 1745, the bookshop will be sold this month to Moravian College. The church could no longer subsidize the losses it was suffering, nor should it.

The college stepped in to save the day and will engage Barnes & Noble to operate the bookstore.

This is a triumphant tale. Two venerable Bethlehem institutions – the Moravian Church and Moravian College – worked together to ensure that the continuous cycle of operation dating to Count Ludwig Von Zinzendorf is not broken. Bethlehem’s bragging rights remain!

Ah, but no story is complete without a narrative arc – and, frankly, no good deed goes unpunished, as Moravian College President Bryon Grigsby has painfully learned. As the news broke, the protests and petitions began. Us lovers of books and bookstore are a passionate bunch. Add in the spark of history and nostalgia and you have yourself a real Bonfire of the Vanities.

While sadness for the passing of an old friend may be in order there is no call for protest or uproar.  Economics, technology and consumer habits have been driving change in the selling and reading of books for the last 2 or 3 decades but, gloriously, the little engine that could is still chugging along.

Neither Kindles, Amazon, nor large national chains have killed off the actual book — which, by the way, is the proper way to read — nor the small, downtown bookstores. In fact, from 2009 to 2015, independent bookstores in America have grown by 35 percent. There are now 2,321 independent bookstores in the U.S., according to the American Booksellers Association.

Barnes and Noble is a good bookstore. While some locations carry more and better titles than others, the selection is often better than independents. And, I’m a bookstore geek. I keep a running list of bookstores I’ve visited and want to visit, along with a ranking of my favorites. I rank the Barnes & Noble at Union Square in New York City as second only to The Strand on Broadway in that bookstore rich city with the possible exception of McNally Jackson Books on Prince St. in SoHo.

I indoctrinated my children to the love of books at the former Barnes and Noble located off MacArthur Rd. in Whitehall during the 1990s. My three kids nicknamed it “The Magic Bookstore.” At a time when money was scarce, we’d spend entire Saturday afternoons in the place, leaving with a few inexpensive books.

In the end, whether you borrow, buy used or buy new – visit an independent or a national – what matters is that books, libraries and bookstores exist, and that you visit them, support them and buy them.

At the risk of certifying myself as a full-on bookstore dork, I confess that I buy books about bookstores. (Yes, they exist.) I recommend My Bookstore edited by Ronald Rice and Footnotes from the World’s Greatest Bookstores by Bob Eckstein. Eckstein’s handsome book, with a foreword by Garrison Keillor, is extra special since it features the Moravian Books Shop. Each store is given its own spread, including watercolors or sketches of its entrance.

I brimmed with pride when I saw Bethlehem’s Main Street and the entrance to the Moravian Book Shop along with the world’s greatest bookstores, many of which are either long closed or have closed since the book was published in 2015, including several of my New York favorites, St. Mark’s, Scribner’s and Gotham.

Thanks to the actions of President Grigsby and the existence of Barnes and Noble that won’t happen at my own special bookstore. I already smell the catnip on those dust jackets from here.

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