The power of a good book


Mario Ortiz

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Growing up, I wasn’t the biggest fan of reading. I could never get “lost” in a book like some peers. However, in college, books have become a great escape for me. They have helped me get away from the usual mundane day and inspired me to learn more. 

In my first year in college, I had to read “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave.” It was the first time I got lost in a book. I was always aware of Fredrick Douglas, but reading his autobiography motivated me to learn more about him, and his impact on American history.

During the pandemic, reading was essential in keeping me sane while being locked in the house all day. Going back and re-reading classic books like “The Great Gatsby,” “Brave New World” and “Holes,” all books I read in high school but didn’t appreciate, and only read summaries online for class. Those books created other worlds I ran away to and have inspired me to write my own book one day. 

The best part of becoming a booklover is visiting local bookstores. Local unincorporated bookstores are vital for students in college towns because they inspire generations of learners. Even though small businesses in college towns have been threatened during the pandemic. Chico’s own The Bookstore continues to encourage students to read, learn and inspire creativity.

The Bookstore has become a place I love to visit. The books radiate through the window, and the idea of all those books with stories and information allures me. Sometimes I visit not to buy a book, but just to soak in all the books and look for future purchases. 

But weirdly, being in that environment, the books are claustrophobic and seemingly infinite. They inspire me creatively: Giving me the inspiration to learn a new topic or write a new piece.

Inside of The Bookstore

The sweet smell of aged books fills the store. With so many different subjects and sections on psychology, pets, business, music, film, sciences, sports, and education, to name a few, anyone can get lost and go on their own reading adventures.  

Josh Mills, with his long grayish hair, and Muir Hughes, wearing a classic yellow beanie, are the owners of The Bookstore, an independent shop downtown near Chico State with a proud history: “Established in 1976 by Ronald Barrett, The Bookstore first opened at 337 Broadway in downtown Chico. The Bookstore moved to its current location at 118 Main St. in October of 1992.

They shut down for the first year of the pandemic, but the store is now open, Monday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.  

“I think it really is like a sanctuary space for people,” Hughes said in a soft voice. 

The store occupies diverse customers — all ages, from little kids to college students to older adults and the elderly.  

“People do donate books sometimes. But that’s not where most of our books come from,” Hughes added. “Most of it comes from purchases. We currently purchase, but we have purchases from, you know, 30 years ago. A big warehouse that we have that we pull from too.”

Hughes added, “When we took over, we added a bunch of things in terms of decorative arts, and I’m an artist, so I’ll put some of my art in here.”

“Well, I worked here for like 20 years by the time he [Ronald Barrett] wanted to sell the place … so essentially, I just bought my job,” Mills said. “He tried to sell it. … I kind of fought him for a little bit.”

The couple is passionate about the store and finds the work very rewarding. 

“Oh, yeah, it’s immensely satisfying. I mean, this is a job I can do, and I can sleep at night,” Mills said. “I mean, it’s a great job where you get mostly positive feedback, you know … very gratifying.” 

According to Spooky Trends: The Slow Death of Independent Bookstores, “independent bookstores ruled the book industry during most of the 20th century, but they started facing competition from bigger book chains in the late 1970s.”

The Open Education Database reports, “the number of independent bookstores in the U.S. dropped from 2,400 to 1,900 between 2002 and 2011.”

While some believe physical books are a dying media. Mills thinks otherwise. 

“They’re always saying it’s a dying media … every upcoming generation of young people, no matter how tech-savvy, it’s still like magic,” Mills said. “They come in here, and their eyes get all big, and they just like they love it.” 

He might be onto something because, according to NPD BookScan, “unit sales of print books rose 8.2% in 2020 over 2019.”  

The importance of independent bookstores lies within themselves. Filled with creditable knowledge and culture, independent bookstores have been a safe space and educating residents since The Temple of the Muses, which was one of the first modern bookstores.

“Where people get a lot of their information online and through other forms of media, but they are not equivalent to a book,” Hughes explained to me, with passion running through his face. 

“It’s a place that doesn’t exclude anybody, It’s a place where people are curious, and they seek information,” Hughes said. “It could be that they really want a great history book to learn something, or it could be that they just want an escape novel, you know, to put their worries aside for a while. I mean, it’s deeply important, I think, for communities to have bookstores.”

Mills and Hughes feel passionate about Chico and adding to the community’s culture. 

“We have a lot of connections to the community and want to be able to provide what the community wants,” Hughes said.

While bigger sellers of books, like Barnes and Nobles, aren’t seen as a threat to the couple. Big box retailers have more of a negative impact on the local economy. 

“We want to be a good member of our community,” she said. “Yeah we want to have events and we want to create a safe environment for everybody.” 

According to a study conducted by the firm Civic Economics in the Andersonville neighborhood of Chicago, “trading independent retailers for big-box chains weakens the local economy. This occurs because while local stores recycle a much larger share of their sales revenue back into the local economy, chains siphon most of the dollars spent at their stores out of the community, sending them back to corporate headquarters or to distant suppliers.

Supporting local independent bookstores is more critical than ever. Locally owned bookstores can still play a significant role in society by creating a sense of community. For college towns, they are inspirational hubs for students who love to learn, who need to de-stress with a good book, and for creatives looking for creative inspiration.

“I’m gonna do it as long as I can,” Mills said. “I don’t have a plan B. So it has to work, you know? Trust me, it’s a thought that occurs to me all the time in the middle of night, but it’s been a thought that has occured to me in the middle of the night for the last 30 years. Maybe that day will come. I don’t know. I’ll be fine. I can live in a van if I have to. Hopefully it won’t come to that.”

Mario Ortiz can be reached at [email protected] or @realnameismario on Twitter.

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