By Harry Onickel

Yes, we’re still locked in. We’ve been locked in for a while now, and it’s having its effects on us. No matter how you’re feeling though, we have to consider the fact that we, in our current society, even in the midst of a global pandemic, have been blessed with an abundance of free time (compared to our agrarian ancestors) and easy access to books with which to fill that free time.

Some of us do work long hours and there isn’t always as much free time as we would like. And sometimes those off hours aren’t so free. There is still a lot to do; house cleaning, yard work, making dinner, interacting with the family and friends, nagging the kids (if the kids aren’t yet old enough to be kicked out of the house) sleeping, and all of the unexpected obstacles that eat away at time and mental stability. Then there is the Internet, the biggest time suck of all.

But the books are still there. Some of us have shelves full. Others have them in electronic form. Don’t forget public libraries, and the little book depositories set up around the neighborhood where people trade old books for new (to them.) The point is that books are here, all around us, and available.

This became clear to me the other day as I drove to my favorite bookstore, the Book Beat in Oak Park. I had phoned ahead for a copy of the lovely hardcover box set featuring volumes 5 and 6 of the Complete Pogo Possum.

I placed the order knowing full well that I could have saved myself a few bucks by ordering it from Amazon without having to leave the Covid-free safety of my house. Shopping on Amazon has become a no-brainer for a lot of us. It’s changed shopping. We can buy many things cheaper and more easily than we were able to in the past. We can read reviews of the products before we buy. Things are delivered within a few days. Add to that the excitement of receiving the item. Everybody loves getting mail, especially packages. Even though we know what’s in it, and when it’s going to come, and even though it’s kind of a gift from ourselves, there is still a happy feeling opening the door to a package on the porch.

But there is a trade-off. Businesses in our neighborhoods have closed because they couldn’t compete against the overwhelming tide of online shopping. Even large retailers have had to adjust their business practices to stay alive. This is nothing new. Retail practices have changed many times over the years, from mom and pop stores to ever larger national retail chains and “big box” stores, to the Internet, and in some cases, back to the local mom and pops. It’s all been in the interest of helping We-the-Consumer in our never-ending search for the cheapest prices on the most possible stuff. We love our cheap stuff. Whatever the stuff we love, we want more of it for the smallest outlay of cash.

But getting back to the trade-off. Yes, the books are available on Amazon, but Amazon lacks some important intangibles. It’s like this:

I began shopping at the Book Beat soon after it opened. My previous favorite bookstore, Maximus and Company, under the direction of Paul Lichter had closed. Someone told me about the Book Beat, directed by Colleen Kammer and Cary Loren. I immediately became a regular. I brought my mother there, and she also became a regular. She collected children’s books, one of the Book Beat’s specialties. Colleen has a deep knowledge of kids’ books, current and past. She knows her stuff. Colleen also figured out what my mother would like and called her regularly to recommend books, which Mom would invariably buy. When they had a signing by a children’s author or illustrator, Colleen made sure she saved a signed book for Mom. My mother left quite a respectable children’s book collection when she died, most of which my father donated to the Southfield Public Library.

Mom also bought books for my kids. She and my wife yelled at me when I tried to stop my then two-year-old son from eating one of the signed books my mother had gotten for him. “It’s his book!” they told me. “He can do what ever he wants with it!”  Ok.

Over the years, the Book Beat has brought in local and national authors from a variety of genres to speak and to sign books. They were early promoters of Christopher Paul Curtis and other local writers. They partner with local libraries for some of their author events.

They work with local teachers, schools, and school districts to promote literacy.

It’s not just that Cary and Colleen know their stuff and love books. So does their staff. You like art books? They have art books, and music books, and classic literature, and offbeat literature, and science fiction, and poetry, and humor, and, and and . . .

Do they have everything?

No. It’s a small store. But it’s packed. After you’ve browsed the shelves, check out the books on the floor. Then go through the nooks and crannies. You’ll find something. It won’t be what you came for, but it will be something fascinating that you’ve never heard of, maybe that you’ve never thought of. That’s one of the joys of browsing. They carry a lot of oddball items, some of them in very small editions. I live for oddball items.

There are many other regulars besides me. This leads to frequent conversations with Colleen, Cary, other staff members, and shoppers when you just have to jump in because someone is discussing an interesting topic. This is quite a bit different than arguing with a commenter on Amazon who dares have a differing opinion and watching it degenerate into a playground name-calling contest.

There is the Book Beat’s reading group.

And I can’t forget Book Beat’s annual anniversary party featuring music, authors, signed books, plants, discounts, and cake. There were also the midnight Harry Potter release parties.

So what we’re looking at here is a physical community in which people meet face-to-face, something we took for granted or maybe even eschewed prior to March 2020. You won’t find that on Amazon.

If you’re not fortunate enough to live near the Book Beat, you probably have your own favorite bookstore, record store, clothing store, or some other store that supplies the intangibles that you need. Support that store.

Like Joni Mitchell sang, “Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone.”

The actual purchase of my book (as I was originally talking about) was, out of necessity, different from past purchases. Going shopping in general, as we have all experienced, has turned into a ridiculous experience. Every purchase from every store or restaurant now feels like an illicit transaction. We phone ahead to tell an anonymous voice what we want. When we arrive at the pick up point, everyone’s identity is hidden. We might be able to walk up to the door or we might have to wait in our car for someone to bring out – “the stuff.” We hand our money to a person in mask and gloves. “You got the stuff?” we ask hopefully. They hand us our bag and then shy away quickly in order to retrieve the next customer’s “stuff.”

I’m not buying anything disreputable. Food and Pogo Possum are nothing to be ashamed of. Of course, it could just be me. Just as it was just me, when last week, as I stood in line, obediently waiting with proper social distancing and a facemask to get into Western Market, I changed my movie. I was no longer Harry Onickel, mild-mannered shopper. In my new movie, I was a criminal mastermind about to pull off the biggest heist of my career. Due to my mask, I was completely anonymous. Nobody would suspect a thing, and after this caper I could retire to a secluded villa on the Spanish Riviera. I was shocked upon entering the store to find that everyone was wearing a mask. Oh no, I thought. Everyone is here to rob the place. How will we split the money? How about that? My new movie was a Woody Allen comedy.

I will go back to my old movie once the quarantine is over and we can all, carefully and safely, go about our business, shopping locally. We may not be able to accumulate as much stuff, but maybe we will be more discriminating and enhance our enjoyment of the stuff we do amass.