Archive for June, 2009

Conkey’s Bookstore is closing, the world is changing

Conkey's Bookstore, in Downtown Appleton, Wisconsin.  Taken during the first snow of the winter of 2006.

Conkey's Bookstore, in Downtown Appleton, Wisconsin. Taken during the first snow of the winter of 2006.

Conkey’s Bookstore – the oldest independent bookstore in Wisconsin, a critical part of downtown Appleton, my place of employment through my four years at Lawrence University, where my mom took me for a cup of hot chocolate after the Christmas parade when I was a little girl, the place so many Appletonians rely on year after year for their Christmas gifts, birthday cards, and unusual book orders – is closing after 113 years of business.

An article in the Appleton Post Crescent last week gave the details of the store’s reasons for closing, so I will not go into those here. For me, and for many, the closing of Conkey’s Bookstore is much more than a news item.

The closing of Conkey’s is more than the loss of another independent bookstore in a community. It’s the loss of a way to make a livelihood for the store’s many full-time employees. It’s the loss of a neighborhood bookstore alternative to heading out to the mall for the residents of downtown Appleton. It’s the loss of a place to get cards, books and gifts for its thousands of loyal customers. It’s the loss of an anchor store for the many local businesses located on downtown College Avenue.

The closing of Conkey’s Bookstore is also a symbol of the direction this world is going in. The McDonaldization of America is often used by sociologists as a metaphor for the takeover of the so-called standardized, predictable, mass marketable, and “economically efficient” in modern American society. McDonaldization as a concept could have just as easily been termed WalMartization. The Big Box stores and chain fast food dives are beating out the small local businesses and ma and pop restaurants. Add this to the recession that is taking its toll on all businesses, large or small, local or chain, and the closing of another independent bookstore doesn’t seem so unlikely or surprising to today’s reader.

But the loss of independent businesses of all types means the loss of the individuality and character that comes with the businesses. Conkey’s has been in Appleton for over one hundred years. It has that charm of an old business, and it used to thrive on the services it provides, such as out-of-print book ordering, and the knowledgeable employees who can recommend a book for anyone. There is an one of those old rolling ladders inside, the kind that nowadays is only seen in movies or in pictures of old libraries. It has the charm of a bookstore that has been there forever. Conkey’s has been in downtown Appleton for longer than living memory.

Countless articles and blog posts have been written about the benefits of independent businesses to communities. One of the more often sited facts I’ve come across is that for every dollar spent at a locally owned business, approximately 60 cents returns to the local economy through wages, investments, and more. Compare this to every dollar spent in a Big Box or nationally owned chain, only 40 cents of which returns to the local community, and it’s clear that locally-owned, independent businesses support community much more than chain stores. Local businesses are also more likely to give donations to charitable causes than chain stores, because there is less corporate mumbo-jumbo to hurdle to get the donation to go through. Local businesses also collaborate frequently with each other, creating a social network of individuals and businesses that can support and cross-publicize one another.

Customers have come into Conkey’s over the past weeks, since the news of our closing was published, and all have lamented the fact that we will be closing our doors after so many years. It really is a tragedy. The oldest independent bookstore in the state of Wisconsin is closing after over a century of business. I think deep down we’re all sort of hoping for a miracle, that some one will be interested in buying the place and keeping it in business. Or that by some sort of divine intervention, business will take a drastic upward turn and we’ll be able to stay open. Or someone will come up with a brilliant business plan to turn Conkey’s into a co-op, like a bookstore in Shorewood, Wisconsin will hopefully soon become.

For me personally, it still hasn’t quite sunk in. It can’t be really happening. The community will find a way to keep Conkey’s open. It’s been such a downtown icon for so long. I’ve had two dreams since I found out Conkey’s was closing. In the first, I’m walking down College Avenue in Appleton and nearly every store is closed and boarded up. In the second dream, I’m talking to customers in the store and I finally start crying, letting out all the welled up grief and tears I have for the fate of the bookstore. I woke up sobbing.

It’s especially disheartening to find the store to be closing as I embark on schooling for a career in sustainable communities. Integral to the health of a community is the health and sustainability of its local businesses. Without places like Conkey’s to provide valuable services like book selling in downtown districts close to where people live and work, residents of communities are forced to get into their cars and travel to large shopping malls for their everyday needs. Local grocery stores, hardware stores, clothing shops, schools – in a sustainable community, these every day places should be within walking or biking distance of every resident. But as more and more local businesses and shops close and are out-competed by the malls and the Big Box stores, community citizens become more and more dependent on their fossil fuel powered vehicles. How can we be otherwise, when stores are farther and farther from our homes, and public transportation in most smaller cities and towns is awful?

It’s easy to sit and lament all the things that will be lost as Conkey’s closes. To berate the Big Box stores and the economy and the internet for forcing the little guys out of business. However, when I become angry at the whole situation, I have to remind myself of what one of Conkey’s loyal customers said the other day. We should have a big party here, she told us. It’s sad that we’re closing, but Conkey’s has had a great run of it for 113 years. We should have a big party, with all of the community invited, to celebrate a century of life. When a 113 year old dies, she said, you don’t have a funeral, you have a party, celebrating a good, long life!

I will miss Conkey’s. I had been planning on coming home to visit the place when I come home for Christmas during the next few years for my yearly walk down memory lane. With the store closing, residents of Appleton and graduates of Lawrence will all have to rely less on the store as a place to conjure nostalgia for our childhoods, and more on the fond memories inside our heads.