First, a confession. I have never been to Plano. Make that had. As a longtime resident of the inner city, a person who seldom ventures above Northwest Highway, and even more seldom north of LBJ, I never had a reason to hit Addison and beyond. I don’t have friends there. I don’t work there. I am not a shopper. And Plano, whatever its many virtues, is not a thing of beauty.
So it was with a sense of energetic adventure that I set out to make the 25-mile trip along the Tollway between downtown Dallas and the Shops at Legacy. Along this busy road, after LBJ, all you see is commerce, business, industry, with few signs of human habitations. You can’t tell that people live here. But Plano is one of the richest, fastest-growing cities in the country, and to disembark at the Shops at Legacy on a Saturday night is to see something you don’t find anywhere else in Dallas: urban life, or something like it. Bumper-to-bumper traffic on the ersatz city streets, people strolling on sidewalks, exciting restaurants and shops. It makes you feel you are in a city even though you are not. You are in The City as Theme Park. It’s not the real thing, but it’s not so bad.
My destination was a bookstore that bills itself as a major new attraction on the North Texas landscape. The very prospect made me nostalgic for all the bookstores I have haunted and loved in decades as a reader. Can such a thing survive in today’s climate? Remember the feel-good ending when big bad Joe Fox (aka Tom Hanks) got to keep his mega-store but was at the same time humanized by child-loving, scrappy independent bookstore owner Kathleen Kelly (Meg Ryan) in 1998’s You’ve Got Mail, which proved that rampant capitalism is inevitable but can learn a thing or two from the little people? It’s hard to imagine that this could happen in real life.
The fabled little literary emporia of yore are mostly gone with the wind. Houston’s Brazos Bookstore is one of the few remaining ones, and it gets by on a wing and a prayer, through the kindness of strangers, and a longtime association with the University of Houston’s Creative Writing Program. Powell’s in Portland, Oregon, is encouraging employees to work fewer hours. From everywhere new reports come daily about old stores shutting down. Olsson’s, Washington, D.C.’s leading independent chain, closed its doors last September.
What few neighborhood places we’ve had in Dallas have struggled and mostly gone belly up, the victims of Amazon and the double whammy of Borders and Barnes & Noble. Real old-timers can remember Cokesbury downtown and Aldredge’s on Maple Avenue. Younger old-timers think back fondly to Taylor Books in Preston Center, Shakespeare Beethoven and Company in the Galleria, The Bookseller at Willowcreek, and specialty shops like Emma Rogers’ Black Images. The book trade is failing. During the Christmas season, newspapers across the country reported the effects of the meltdown: employees laid off, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt not accepting new manuscripts, authors’ advances cut way back, and so on. And bookstores are failing still more. Borders, the second-largest bookseller in the country after B&N, is teetering on the edge of bankruptcy.
So what was in the mind of Fehmi Karahan, the developer of the opulent Shops at Legacy, when he teamed up with Teri Tanner, a Tyler native with plenty of experience in the book chains and also in independent retail? I’m not sure. They could not have foreseen, during the planning stages, the current state of the economy. But the fruit of their vision, Legacy Books, now sits in the still-developing north half of the mega-center in Plano. When it opened in November, it was the largest independent bookstore (with 110,000 titles) to open anywhere in the country for longer than anyone could remember. How long it will last remains to be seen. We live in hope, as someone in a Jane Austen novel says.
Legacy Books was in time for the holiday rush. Fashion guru Isaac Mizrahi and Diana Kennedy, expert on Mexican cuisine, were among the first performing guests, the second of whom took advantage of the gorgeous kitchen and dining space that occupy the front part of the 24,000-square-foot, three-floor establishment. Oh yes: bookstores don’t just sell books. They are “destinations.” If your idea of a literary destination is Larry McMurtry’s Booked Up, the treasure trove in Archer City, Texas, think again. When you arrive in flat and spanking-new Plano, where Legacy awaits, you’re in a different kind of destination.
The Big Question: is it worth enlarging your carbon footprint to get to a place where you’re going to pay full price for books? (No 30-Percent-Off-Best-Sellers table greets you at the front of the store.) Legacy thinks so. They want to “enhance the experience,” which explains the non-book gift items at the front of the store, the pretty good little restaurant, the cooking displays and wine tastings, the authors’ appearances in the handsome upstairs lounge that can accommodate about 100 people and where you don’t have to suffer as you do at the chains from store announcements over the loudspeakers and people wandering in and out at random. Its website will provide information but you won’t be able to buy things from it. You must make the pilgrimage.
Anyone old enough to remember the little bookstore around the corner—dusty, cramped, and disorganized, run by a grumpy bibliophile with a heart of gold who left you alone to wander at your own pace—must be taken aback by the politesse of greetings and farewells pouring from the staff at the door (“Welcome to Legacy Books,” “Have a wonderful afternoon”), all of whom have what seem to be surgically implanted earphones and mikes that allow them to keep in touch with their co-workers. It’s the same, of course, at the chain stores, but most readers of an old-fashioned stripe like wandering around unaided, either because readers are ornery to begin with or because they don’t in fact know what they are looking for until they come upon it unexpectedly.
Legacy Books wants to be like the old-fashioned, full-service bookstores run by the Meg Ryans and grouchy old gentlemen of years gone way, but with all the modern conveniences. It aims at beauty and comfort. Books are like all other commodities, and packaging and display are paramount. The store is interior-decorated; the white oak floors gleam; the piped-in music is big bands and Billie Holiday, Louis Armstrong, Tony Bennett, Madeleine Peyroux (cool but not threatening); its three sides of glass are unadorned with posters or anything else that will prevent people on one side of the window from seeing people on the other. It has understated elegance, indeed, luxury. The reading chairs are very comfy.
Everything is wonderful. Until, that is, you wander between the stacks and examine the bookcases, which have (of course) been scientifically aligned so that the aisles between them are neither too narrow (and claustrophobic) nor too wide (and alienating). The late Ray Nasher perfected the art of the aisle at NorthPark decades ago. He would like it here.
But the books? Well, it may be too early to know for sure, and the store insists it will wait to hear from its customers to learn what they want, but at first glance Legacy Books didn’t seem to have anything that anyone else—chain or not—doesn’t have. They intend to stock unusual works, small-press books, but none of these intentions had borne fruit on my early visit. They do not sell music or videos. The largest sections are Children’s Books and Cooking. A snob like me winces when he sees similarly large groupings under New Age, Relationships, and Paranormal, but I thought, “What does it matter if they have stuff that I don’t want, as long as they have stuff I do want?”
As a literary academic with a fondness for poetry, I made a beeline to the poetry section, a little smaller than the comparable sections at the Preston Royal Borders and the Northwest Highway Barnes & Noble. The offerings were meager, erratic, disjointed. For no discernible reason, the poet with the largest number of books was Charles Bukowski, that old drunken madman. Homer came in second. Go figure. At the Preston Royal Borders, Maya Angelou seemed to be the poète du jour, probably because of her celebrity stature. (Borders also features CliffsNotes and a big rack of new fiction at 30 percent off. So does B&N.)
“Fiction” and “Literature” seemed synonymous in all three places, and anything written more than 50 years ago manages to have assumed the status of a classic or a cult favorite. At Legacy, Joseph Mitchell’s Up in the Old Hotel, that great journalistic series of vignettes, elegies for old, louche, downtown Manhattan, was right next to that other Mitchell (Margaret)’s Gone With the Wind. Well, even the shelves in major university libraries have mistaken arrangements.
Wrinkles must be ironed out. It’s hard to know why one should prefer one bookstore to another. Perhaps Legacy Books will become the home away from home for Dallas intellectuals, especially if its reading series takes off.
And it’s harder to know whether it will provide real competition for Half Price Books, especially the Mother Lode on Northwest Highway. One recent Saturday afternoon, it was full of people, some of whom had to wait more than an hour to get bids on the books they’d brought to sell. The manager told me that in January business was up 10 percent from a year ago, and that in December sales were down a hair but still over the target. In bad economic times, readers will unload more of their unwanted stuff, not necessarily to buy groceries or even to empty their shelves, but more generally to feed their buying habits. Bartering—turning stores into the equivalent of libraries where you make a withdrawal and then return to make a deposit—might be the secret to the new economy.
Its biggest fan would never make claims for the beauty of the store. Picture a cross between a high school gym and Home Depot. Part of the floor is covered in industrial carpet; the rest is plain concrete. The shoppers are far from elegant. You can’t always find what you want but, as Mick Jagger might say, you might just find what you need. At Half Price you may find books from last year, and the occasional best seller, but don’t count on anything. You’ll find odd collections of remainders. Does anyone want one of the dozen copies of William Blake’s Illustrations to the Poems of Thomas Gray, marked down from $65 to $29.98? Half price, indeed. The poetry section goes literally from A to Z, Dorothy Alison (I knew she wrote prose, so I learned something new when I saw her verses) to Stefan Zweig.
At the front of the store are the shelves and cases of “collectibles,” the most valuable of which are locked in glass cases. Want a first edition of Charlotte’s Web signed by Garth Williams, its illustrator, for $350? Or a signed first edition of Nelson Algren’s 1949 National Book Award-winning The Man With the Golden Arm ($250)? You’ve come to the right place.
But back to the retail scene. Wandering through the stores, I decided to run a little test. With my smiling, innocent journalist’s grin, I asked random employees at Borders and B&N what they were reading for fun. One clerk, evidently a non-reader, was nonplussed. I, too, was somewhat taken aback. He had a slacker look about him, so I assumed, wrongly, that he was a bookworm. One guy named Amsterdam, by Booker Prize winner Ian MacEwan (big points for that one). One said Tolkien; another said vintage 1960s comic books; a third waxed rhapsodic over the hot new vampire writer Stephenie Meyer. Two spoke with enthusiasm about recent sci-fi work. None of them had the time to engage in fuller conversations. Commerce trumped book talk. My heart did not leap up. So much for the chains.
At Legacy, an attractive young man whom we would have called “preppy” some years back asked whether he could help me find something. Well, since he was trying to be of use, I thought I’d engage his energies, although I didn’t expect more from him than what I heard from his colleagues at the chains. I posed the question to him: “And what have you been reading for fun these days?” Young Robert (a UTD student) replied without missing a beat: The Brothers Karamazov (in the Richard Pevear translation), the fourth novel in the Patrick O’Brian Aubrey/Maturin series, and Benjamin Graham’s The Intelligent Investor.
“Are you an English major?” I asked, hopefully.
“No, I’m studying business,” he replied. “But literature is where my heart is.”
His answer made me think I might want to return, carbon footprint be damned.