The power of books — & independent bookstores

April 25, 2019 GMT

On the day after the shocking fire that inflamed Notre Dame Cathedral, I was taken by the fact that in much of the media coverage that followed, Victor Hugo’s “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” was noted, skyrocketing to the Amazon bestseller list in France as it did overnight. And quickly, the novel has again been tasked, by its deceased author, to influence its readership and encourage community action.

It seems that in 1831, when Victor Hugo published his famous story, the author was actively championing a rebirth for the then-crumbling, centuries-old landmark around which his story is centered. In the novel, the character archdeacon Frollo, says, “The book will destroy the edifice,” expressing Hugo’s notion that the printing press had usurped architecture as the primary communicator of a civilization’s values. “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” became a smash hit, the church regained popular attention, and in 1844, the king ordered a restoration of the Cathedral.

Books rarely capture this kind of attention. Neither do bookstores. Certainly not within two weeks time, and certainly not with meaningful, positive influence.

Cut to the last Saturday of April, on which for five years, a nation-wide celebration takes place to honor a significant community hub, the Independent Bookstore. Whenever I first visit a city, neighborhood, or burg, the first places I visit include those iconic symbols of community that stand in or nearby the local “commons:” the church, the market, the coffee shop, the bookstore. Each, in its own way, is a center for communion and each fortifies body, mind, and soul.

I love books. I love bookstores. I visit my local independent bookstore, Byrd’s Books in Bethel, along with its “common” neighbors, not only for creative inspiration and new knowledge, but also for camaraderie, country-fare gossip, and to escape a world of ubiquitous tweets, 24/7 digital bombardment, and impersonal Big Boxes.

The proprietor of Byrd’s Books, Alice Hutchinson, says, “Independent bookstores are vital for the literary health of a community. Beyond offering a curated selection of books, an indie bookstore supports authors by connecting them to their audience. Whether it be children’s or adult titles, the opportunity for authors to interact with their readership is invaluable. We cherish that aspect of the book business and find it is a driving force for enrichment.”

What if Alice Hutchinson had known Victor Hugo? Would he be a highlight at this year’s Independent Bookstore Day party? And what would the two have made happen for the community? Perhaps this is the start of a fictional alternative history yet to be penned.

Ted Killmer is a resident of Danbury.