Madison Monday: Village Lights Bookstore

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Oscar in the chair

Earlier this year, the father of one of my friends passed away in a place he had only lived for about six months. The place he had lived happened to be just down the road from where I myself had grown up, and so the visitation was held in the same funeral home where I attended visitation for almost every person I knew who died when I was growing up. This odd confluence of events left me with a horror of dying in a place that was not home to me, in a place that had never felt like home to me.

What does that have to do with a local bookstore? The owners of Village Lights Bookstore in my lovely town of Madison, Indiana, decided to move to Southern Indiana and start a bookstore after watching a close friend grow ill and die in a place where he had said he did not want to die. That experience was part of their motivation for deciding that life is short, and if they wanted to turn to a new page in it, they’d better get to it. Luckily for all of us here in Madison, Nathan Montoya and Anne Vestuto chose our town and gave us Village Lights, the kind of bookstore that makes you say, “This is exactly what a bookstore should be.”

What’s the most important thing in an independent local bookstore owner? Probably that they love books. That they still get excited about opening a box of books or finding that prize rare book find at a used book sale. That they care enough about books to meticulously clean all their used books before they put them on the shelves. That they’re interested in the history of books, the repairing of books, the making of books. That they have a passion for books and a knowledge of books that you won’t find online. It doesn’t hurt if they’re also highly educated (between the two of them, Nathan and Ann have degrees in biology, psychology, religious studies, environmental studies, ballet, opera directing and nursing), well-traveled (they’ve lived in New York, Germany, Great Britain and Texas), and oh, maybe also that they’ve trained and performed with the Martha Graham Dance Ensemble. How many local independent bookstore proprietors have that on their resumes?

Nathan and Anne

What makes a good local independent bookstore? At its best, and in a town like Madison, which as much as I love it, can be a bit, well, provincial, a bookstore is a gateway to another world. As Nathan described, it’s a gathering place, a literary/cultural/social nexus. At Village Lights, there are books on the shelves, art on the walls, music from the grand piano, comfy chairs to sit in and perhaps most importantly, two cats to play with or pet. There are poetry fairs and author readings and open mike nights and gallery openings and musical performances.

The rate of turnover for businesses in Madison has always seemed fairly high, but lately the speed at which businesses have been opening and then closing their doors has been enough at times to make your head spin. Village Lights has been around for 3 years now, and will hopefully be around for years to come. What makes the difference between a business that’s here to stay and one that’s here for a couple of weeks? Of course a good business plan, a good product or service to sell, and maintaining regular hours all help. But maybe even more important than all those things is that you are invested–emotionally and financially. That your business is also your livelihood is important financial motivation. When you think about books as more than commodities to be bought and sold, that is emotional motivation. Nathan describes books as “vessels” and “things of beauty.”  A book is more than just words on the page.

It also doesn’t hurt to have a physical space that is beautiful and comfortable, the kind of place that invites you into its doors. In his study of public spaces, William H. Whyte noticed a distinct effect that a good space has on people walking by. They do a double-take. They stop in their tracks. They take backward steps in order to get a better look. They smile. If they’re in a group, they consult with each other. Good places seem to have an actual gravitational force; they draw you in. On a nice day in Madison, when there are lots of folks wandering up and down the street and the doors of Village Lights are open, the inside of this bookstore has the same effect. Folks stop and look in the windows. They might point at Oscar or Trudie, one of the two resident cats napping in the window. They hesitate for a moment, and then they go in. Hopefully, some of them buy some books, but some of them may not. What they all get for free is the experience of a beautiful space that has been built for the enjoyment of books. The people browsing in Village Lights are happy, because good places make us happy. This is just part of what a good bookstore can do for a town.

This Thursday is Thanksgiving, and then Black Friday, when Americans all over the country engage in a frenzy of consumerism. Folks get up at ungodly hours of the morning in order to buy things and to buy them cheap. I suppose that’s appealing to some people, though to me, a mall on Black Friday is pretty close to what I imagine my own personal hell would look like. If you share my particular vision of hell, you might instead try Small Business Saturday. Or you might just try shopping at a local business any time, Saturday or not. There will be no frenzied sales at places like Village Lights. There will be very few books that are “cheap,” because there’s more to a book than how much it happens to cost. You will be able to take your time. You could sit in a chair and actually read some of a book before you buy it. You could read some of a book and not buy it at all. You might find some books that you’d never heard of before browsing their shelves which quickly become some of your favorites.   Books I’ve personally found which fit into that category include Quite A Year for Plums, Rural Free, The Winter Queen, and The Year of Pleasures.  You won’t have to fight off a crowd to nab the latest bestseller at the lowest price, but you could ask Ann or Nathan to suggest some good books for people on your own gift list, knowing that they’ve handpicked every book on their shelves.

Most importantly, at a local, independent bookstore like Village Lights, you can experience what it’s like to be in a store where selling things is not the only thing. You can be in a place where people and community and the environment and beauty and relationships are also important. A good community is made of many such places, and here’s hoping for many more like Village Lights in my town and yours.

Village Lights Bookstore is located in downtown Madison, at 110 East Main St. If they don’t have the book you’re looking for in their store, they’re happy to find it for you, even if it’s rare or out of print. In their three-year history, there’s been only one book they haven’t been able to find, so the odds are in your favor. They offer discounts for book clubs, as well as meeting space upstairs for events. You can do a book registry for your special event, get a book gift basket, and have your books gift-wrapped. Village Lights also offers book repairs and hope to eventually offer classes in book-making. You can check out Village Lights online, here, where in the future they will also have an online store specializing in antiquarian and rare collectible books and the capacity to sell e-books.

Even if you have no interest in books at all (as frightening as that may be), there’s something for you at Village Lights. Once a month on Saturday from 1-3, you’ll find Tom Schneider playing American Songbook standards on the grand piano in the Twain Room. Every other month, there’s open mike night or a gallery opening. And in April, look for their Poetry Fair, featuring three current and former Indiana Poet Laureates (Karen Kovacik, Norbert Krapf and Joyce Brinkman), one former Kentucky Poet Laureate (Richard Taylor), as well as Ruthellen Burns, Jonathan Greene, Joseph Heithaus, Jack Ramey and Ron Whitehead.

Happy football and turkey day!

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