Opinion

Illiteracy and a surge in bookstores are a conundrum in our community

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I frequent bookstores. Sometimes I go there to find a new book. To read in a comfy chair. To watch people finding books, and reading in their comfy chairs.  In addition to new and used books, bookstores offer tea and pastry and lunch. I can meet with friends. Many people do this; writers in particular. Among the many things the pandemic robbed me of, this one I missed the most. Among the norms I am rarin' to get back to, visiting bookstores is high on my list.  

So it was great to read the recent cover story in City Pulse about the blooming of independent book stores locally. The gathering place for the club of literate people, independent bookstores are the threads in the fabric of our community.  

Bookstores are businesses that literate people patronize. Thar's gold in being literate, pardner. A sticker or table that says "Local Author" is money in the bank for locally owned bookstores. People are still awed to meet an author. At bookstore readings they stand in line to get their book signed, a sign that they met the author, a certified literate person. Yet, local authors struggle to get their books on the shelves of the national chain bookstore, whereas local indie bookstore management doesn't have to ask the front office in New York about stocking a book.  

Like all other businesses, bookstore owners have overhead and bills to pay. There's not a lot of profit in terms of money, but bookstore owners do not go into business to get rich. Amazon started by undercutting bookstores with bargain basement book prices, but the online retailer quickly diversified its stock to ... everything else.  

Bookstores’ stock-in-trade are ideas, stored in every square inch of the store, accessible by speaking to another person or grabbing a book or magazine from the shelves. Not a relic of history, the digitally inclined can also purchase electronic devices in the bookstore. 

Every American should be ready for the bookstore, but in 2022 Michigan lolls in the bottom half of 50 states in literacy achievement. 

“Improve Early Literary Achievement” is the #2 goal in the Michigan Department of Education’s Top 10 Strategic Education Plan. In t 2015, of 50 states Michigan was #41. In 2019, our state moved up to #32. That's progress, yet not enough.  

Literacy among Black kids in Michigan has improved, barely. In 2015, just 8.5 percent of Black or African America students were reading at the fourth-grade level, but in 2019 that nearly doubled to 15 percent.  

No top model, but at least the needle is pointing north.  

People sometimes joke about Michigan trying to be Mich-ississippi, a reference to the southern state that is a perpetual bottom feeder in education. It's hard for me to LOL at the joke because I attended Wayne State University in Detroit when it was hiring English professors from Ivy League universities. 

What we are seeing in 2022 is books being banned, and the dumbing down of history and science books, and censorship of book content. It's a page out of “Fahrenheit 451,” a book about burning books to keep people under control. 

Being illiterate is like living life on a broken-up road. You can get where you're going, but it's going to be a rough ride, a very rough ride. everything is more difficult to accomplish, and the shame is always there. Plus, an illiterate person misses the benefits of the bookstore. 

Statistics and demographics show that most human prisoners are deficient in their literacy skills, some to the point of being illiterate. It accounts for an inability to think through decisions, the ability to make a good decision, and not a bad one. 

I am talking about getting an education where the main goal is to create responsible, thinking citizens who contribute to their community. Teachers and every person who works in a school are the foundation of the literacy industry. Bookstores are the capstone, the way a democratic, capitalist society can incorporate reading into everyday life. 

The ultimate in literacy is writing and publishing a book. Writers are the embodiment of the value of thinking and the ability to be persistent.  Writing and publishing my book, “Mother of Orphans: The True and Curious Story of Irish Alice, a Colored Man's Widow,” was "a labor of love." A perseverance that required grit and resolve.  

Bookstores offer readers a second home. This feeling comes across in series of murder mystery novels written by author Louise Penny. The series set in the fictional village of Three Pines in Quebec, Canada, focuses on Chief Inspector Armand Gamache. The big cast of characters includes another one I can identify with. Her name is Myrna. 

Myrna is a Black female psychologist who retired to Three Pines. She owns the village bookshop that is complete with comfy overstuffed chairs. She lives in the same building as her business; it's at center of her good life within a community she loves.  

In the City Pulse report, Lansing bookstore owners reported carving out their niche, offering books in a boutique setting, curating its collection of books for the locals. Dylan Rogers explained how opening The Robin Books in Reotown during the pandemic saved his main business, the Robin Theater. What he's talking about is community, and how bookstores are helping to weave it. 

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