Thursday, March 7, 2019

Requiem For A Small Town Book Store

This week I got the sad news that Prairie Books, a mainstay of my hometown of Hastings, Nebraska, would be closing. I had known this day was coming ever since one of the owners died back in 2015. His wife kept it going for four more years, but whenever I visited home I noticed that the store's hours had been cut back, never a good sign.

The store has been around in Hastings for over 40 years, there isn't a time that I can remember it not existing. It moved from downtown to the mall in the early 80s, in a sign of the economic times. It moved back downtown in the late 90s as Walmart and other box stores were killing the mall and the downtown was getting an injection of investment. The downtown now has some cafes, restaurants, and even a microbrewery, but retail is practically dead. Allen's, the local department store, closed everything but its grocery store this year, and Herberger's, the last general clothing store, also shut its doors. Walmart now competes with dollar stores, which have sprung up around town like poisonous mushrooms.

My hometown, like so many other small towns in the Great Plains, gets more and more hollowed out with each passing year. It's not just that businesses are closing, it's that these are businesses with real meaning to the community. Prairie Books has a "Nebraska Room" in the back full of books about the state, including a wealth of books on Native American history. Every time I have visited in recent years I have gone to the store to get a book, usually from that room. Places that have meaning for the local community are disappearing, replaced by outposts of corporate behemoths Hoovering up the money from Hastings and depositing it in the pockets of far-away stockholders.

Part of the reason I care about this is that I am cursed as an exile to be more invested in my homeland's uniqueness than the people who live there. But beyond that, I am legitimately sad at the loss of a place that meant so much to me. In my pre-internet childhood having a good bookstore in my small, isolated town was absolutely crucial. It was there when I was in the fourth grade and obsessed with Choose Your Own Adventure books. When I became a fantasy RPG nut it's where I bought copies of Dragon magazine, as well as way too many Dragonlance novels. (Once I developed some taste I bought my Tolkien books there, too.) Later it's where I fed my Stephen King obsession in middle school, as well as my growing interests in history and science fiction. In high school it's where I started exploring heavier literature, from Conrad to Dostoevsky. I still remember the day I came in as a 17 year old and asked the store to order me a copy of Kerouac's On The Road. The owner of the store gave me a little smile at my request. While my teenaged love of that book embarrasses me a little today, that smile was probably my first clue that I would think of that book differently in adulthood.

When I was growing up the Omaha World-Herald, Nebraska's biggest newspaper, compiled a list of best-sellers each week in the state to run alongside the Times' bestseller list. The only bookstore in the rural part of the state they used to compile the list was Prairie Books. It made me feel like my town mattered, that we were more cultured than those other cow towns out on the plains. A lot things over the past three decades have shown my town to be just another rural burg getting hollowed out by global capitalism. Of all those things none stings harder than losing Prairie Books.

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