Independent bookstores have long served as more than businesses — they have grown into gathering places for monumental changes and ideas. A shop like City Lights in San Francisco launched careers and entire movements. Another like Powell’s City of Books in Portland has turned into a major institution and landmark in its hometown.
What most know is that indie bookstores, while often cultural barometers for a town, have been under siege on multiple fronts. Online booksellers, used-book commerce via the Internet and big box stores have all competed for the literary dollar. Even against these odds, indie bookstores are staying open and, some say, making a comeback.
This makes the project of Bryan David Griffith of great interest, as he’s created a photographic essay exhibit called “The Last Bookstores.” It’s currently on display at the Jewell Gallery in Coconino Center for the Arts, and can be viewed up through Oct. 29. It’s free and open to the public. Learn more about gallery events and hours at www.flagartscouncil.org.
The flagstaff-based photographer turned this documentation of independent bookstores into a passion project, traveling boundless miles across country to document some of the country’s most iconic shops, including the aforementioned City Lights Bookstore.
“I’m concerned about how changes in publishing and the distribution of media are affecting not only photographers, but writers, journalists and creative professionals of all stripes,” Griffith said. “What will happen to the creative output of our society if it continues to become more difficult for the next generation of writers and artists to make a living through their craft? Or if a book’s circulation is based not its critical merit, but instead on the author’s ability to pay Amazon for prime listings or accumulate a prescribed number of followers on social media?”
Griffith also trained his lens on the bookstores because they’re part of that struggling sector of the economy known as the small business. And yet, Griffith shares the sentiments of many that these small businesses make a big impression on their communities.
“As someone who has traveled extensively across the US each year for the last 20 years, I’ve noticed the proliferation of chain stores and restaurants beyond the suburbs into urban retail districts, eroding the unique charm and culture of individual cities,” he said. “American cities are starting to all seem the same.”
He added, “I’ve always eschewed the convenient predictability of national chains and sought out independent shops and restaurants wherever I travel. Not out of any particular moral obligation, but simply because it’s often a higher quality — and always a more colorful — experience. For me, local color is the joy of travel.”
As for the exhibit itself, it blends a number of images in a photojournalistic framework. The photographs try to capture the essence of the space, place and moment. Griffith also combines the images with text gathered from interviews during his visits.
“‘The Last Bookstores’ presents a cross section of the bookselling industry that’s representative of what I discovered by spending hundreds of hours in bookstores observing and interviewing — asking questions, in other words,” he said. “The work isn’t necessarily beautiful. Sometimes it’s peculiar, or even downright unflattering. But it’s authentic and thought provoking, I hope. My goal is to inspire viewers to question their assumptions, ponder new questions and come to their own conclusions.”