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John Benditt in conversation with Nancy Pearl - University Bookstore Wednesday, February 25th, 7:00pm
After a month-long hiatus, The Open Bar is back on the road (don’t worry, we hitchhike), seeking fortune, fame, and our nation’s best independent booksellers. In this week’s installment, Christopher Barzak takes us down Interstate 680 for a visit to the pride of Youngstown, OH, Dorian Books.
For over a decade now, my favorite bookstore has been Dorian Books in Youngstown, Ohio, where I live and teach creative writing in the Northeast Ohio MFA program at Youngstown State University. If you’re unfamiliar with the city of Youngstown, Ohio, a thumbnail sketch might be appropriate to understand all of the reasons why I love Dorian Books. Youngstown is an old industrial city that made steel and nothing but back in the day, and when manufacturing moved overseas to developing nations that would work very cheaply, the city started to go under. This was back in the late 70s and early 80s, and it’s continued to fracture and come apart at its various seams as social breakdown occurs anywhere that an economy has been tugged out from under it. There are lots of little cities and midsize cities like Youngstown in the Rustbelt. Furthering the breakdown were other factors that most cities of this sort understand: white flight, for instance. Like Detroit, Youngstown is a city ringed by largely homogeneous white middle class suburban communities.
In any city where poverty has come to nest, there are terms that begin to arise to describe problems inherit to such places. Food deserts, for example, is a term that I’ve recently become acquainted with, as Youngstown had been a food desert for the past ten years, meaning that most of the grocery stores that provide fresh food had also left the city, making it difficult for low income residents who might not have cars or a way into the suburbs to buy fresh food. They largely became dependent on convenience stores, where the food isn’t exactly fresh, nor healthy. Luckily, a new chain of stores is soon going to come in to help solve that problem, but the term really struck me as one that could be interchangeable with other things: like books. We also live in a book desert in this corner of Ohio.
Of course the suburbs have their own box store book stores: one Barnes and Noble, one Borders, but other than that, almost every single independent bookstore has been chased out of existence within the past fifteen years. I remember there being at least eight other indie bookstores when I was a teenager. Now, at thirty-five, Dorian Books is the last one standing. It’s a beautiful store that sits on an intersection where two wildly different competing cultures exist: the university dormitories on one side, and a declining neighborhood that surrounds a park that got a bad rap in the 80s for muggings. I walk or jog in that park often, and it’s a safe place now, but the perception of it still lingers, as does the blight and blind-eye turning that comes with that perception.
I like to go to Dorian Books because it’s a real bookstore, and by that I mean that it’s got handmade bookshelves that reach up into the shadows of a tall ceiling, that it has plants and funky lamps positioned in corners, and large wooden study desks for readers to sit at, that it has a fat cat that comes out to greet patrons and get his belly rubbed, and that the owner, Jack, will always have a conversation with me and that there is no hard selling of some particular publisher’s book of the month or their new e-reader. It’s an old school bookstore existing in a bookstore desert, and doing quite well, thank you. Along with the books, there’s a great performance room in the place, where I hold events for the Ytown Reading Series, and where musical concerts take place. And next door to that, a florist shop, also owned by the same guys who run Dorian’s, and between those three components, what they’ve built is a little oasis in the desert of post-industry.
I lived in Japan for several years and when I came back here to the Mahoning Valley, where I grew up, sometimes friends from elsewhere would ask, why I’d go back there, where it seems the world has been closing down for decades. In a way, my answer is embedded in the reasons why I love Dorian Books. This is a place where the American dream of plentifulness (of jobs, food, books, or what have you) has been revealed as a dream that only exists in some parts of America. Not having the table of plenty set at my table here, though, has shown me how to better appreciate what we don’t have on hand here so easily, and to be grateful instead of taking certain things for granted. As a teenager, I used to take the comforts and charm of independent bookstores for granted. As an adult, I see how quickly they, too, can become an endangered species.
Christopher Barzak stories have appeared in a many venues, including Nerve.com, The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror, Strange Horizons, and Salon Fantastique. His first novel, One for Sorrow, was published by Bantam Books in Fall of 2007, and won the Crawford Award that same year. His second book, The Love We Share Without Knowing, is a novel in stories set in Japan, and was nominated for the Nebula Award for Best Novel and the James Tiptree Jr. Award. He currently lives in Youngstown, Ohio, where he teaches writing at Youngstown State University.