Death of an extremely rare breed

We’ve all heard about the toll the internet and big-box bookstores have taken on independent bookstores. To a great extent, the independents that are dying are what I would call community bookstores. They don’t specialize in any one thing but carry a wide range of books to cater to the general public. Now imagine the chances of a bookstore whose mission statement tells everyone it

stands in solidarity with all struggles for justice, peace and equality and allies itself with all peoples resisting violence and oppression. We believe in media as a means toward the realization of social justice and liberation. We seek to provide a space where voices, people and ideas silenced and ignored by the mainstream media are given room to be heard, to be seen, to be supported and to be realized. We see ourselves as a hub for radical and progressive exchange and aim to provide a physical space in the community that is grounded in liberation for all.

Probably not long for the world, right? Well, Food For Thought Books Collective had a nearly four decade run. Sadly, it announced yesterday that it was shutting its doors. Food For Thought was unlike any other bookstore I’ve been to. It opened in 1976 as “independent, not-for-profit, workers’ collective bookstore.” Here, a “workers’ collective” anything would cause eyes to roll back into heads. So, no, Food for Thought isn’t anywhere near South Dakota. It’s in Amherst, Mass.

food for thoughtSo why do I care that it’s closing? It was a wonderful place to explore. As you might expect, it carried books, periodicals and other items you won’t find at Barnes & Noble, Books A Million, any chain store selling books or even traditional independent bookstores. Yet it also carried fiction and nonfiction you’d see in any other bookstore. Some University of Massachusetts-Amherst students (including my youngest daughter) made an effort to buy their school books there. Still, Food For Thought’s financial difficulties were fairly well known; it took an Indiegogo campaign to keep it open this far into the year.

Food For Thought’s inability to survive in Amherst also illustrates not only the ebook/Amazon revolution but a rejection of, or at least indifference to, what Food For Thought represented. Sure, Massachusetts is a liberal state (or “leftist” in South Dakotan). But Amherst not only is home to the UMass flagship (27,000 students and home to a 28-story library), there are four well-known private liberal arts colleges nearby: Amherst (the second best liberal arts college in the 2013 U.S. News & World Report rankings); Hampshire (where “students pursue self-initiated, individual programs of study negotiated with faculty mentors”); Mount Holyoke (a women’s school founded in 1834 and 38th among liberal arts colleges in the U.S. News rankings); and Smith (a women’s school that opened in 1875 and 18th among liberal arts colleges in the U.S. News rankings). If being amidst the students and faculty of five excellent schools couldn’t sustain the bookstore, there’s few, if any, places that can.

The closing of any independent bookstore is disheartening. But when one as unique as Food For Thought closes, it’s a tragedy.

If the college you visit has a bookstore filled with t-shirts rather than books, find another college.

Albert Mohler, “The Marketplace of Ideas — Why Bookstores Matter

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