Unpacking the Bookstore: Objects in Space

It is impossible, when looking at a diagram of the inside of Square Books, to not be reminded of a very specific format of store. At first glance, it seems similar to the layout of my own Barnes and Noble near my house, having a second story and a very spacious area to walk through with displays littered along the path. But upon a further look, it has a very different feel to it. A feeling not unlike the one I felt earlier this month when looking at the inside of The Bookateria or when looking at any variety of smaller bookstore. It has a vibe that comes off different than Barnes and Noble in that it knows exactly what it is marketing towards, and doesn’t waver from that for a majority of its role. Square, however, has an even more mystical air to it than the others of its kin, as it has been able to grow and adapt with its times instead of falling to the wayside with the advent of the modern superstore and the ability to order through the internet.

Right at the entrance of the building, the first noticeable shelves are those that house a stack of New York Times guides featuring bestsellers and other books of interest. Directly next to that is a more niche shelf, featuring several copies of “Indie Bestsellers” that feature books that are not entirely popular but are gaining quite abit of traction. That shelf is one of the first things to set this store apart from the common chain, as it features books that are gaining traction, but are not quite guaranteed to be huge sellers or make killings. It is there for people who want to find new media, and those who are interested in the subject matter of books instead of trying to just find popular books that everyone loves. Indie books and the whole indie subculture are very important to keeping the narrative of an independent bookstore, as they maintain the homegrown, almost underground aesthetic of the very concept. A book that not many have read will draw the eye of those going out of their way to seek less popular media much more quickly than an abundance of what everyone wants and gets.

The narrative of Square books is furthered by the section on the right side of the store right before the stairway to the second floor. The entire area from the glass windows giving a vista into the store from the outside and the stairway that cuts the back-right quarter of the store off is a section simply titled “Mississippi”. The section features nothing but books with their roots or themes tied directly to the state in which it is nestled away in. The section is composed of 3 shelves and three tables all stacked with books, multiple copies of everything obviously being included. To follow this “southern haven” narrative that I have discussed before, in which Square Books has always painted itself as a form of refuge for southern history and literature, the entire store is adorned with prominent authors from the area in both portraits and shots of book covers. In fact, one of the first images that caught my eye when looking at the inside of the store was a full portrait of John Grisham taken at the store. Being from the town, it was honestly expected, but it still struck a chord that this store really was exactly what it’s narrative is trying to create with the layout. It has, since its very opening, been a concentration of the very culture that the south is built upon.

There are also several additions to the store that paint a sort of change in the narrative. This change is something distinct from The Bookateria that I wrote about recently, in that Square Books has reached a point where they are incredibly willing to modernize whereas other independent shops that I have witnessed often keep to their old ways and are left behind from the modern eye because of that. One of the first points I made about Square was that the inside resembled the same layout as the UD Barnes and Noble. The store (likely since its move to a new building back in the 90’s) has added many features that make it much more relevant than a store that does not make the changes. The store has very spacious displays, opting for an open style instead of the rows and rows of books that many old school stores opt in for. It keeps its shelves to the walls and opts for tables and waist-high displays in the open so that there is a clear visibility to everything in the store and everything is very easy to find and get to. No mazelike shelves blocking vision and no need for a map to find a single section as everything is clearly labeled. The upper level of the building is also a testament to the newer style of bookshop in that it contains a café and balcony for sitting in and reading. A key aspect that this pushes is that it makes the store feel much more welcoming and open than a store that looks like a library. The towering shelves and mazelike design of the Bookateria made me come up with a mission so that I could get in and get out, while something like Square Books or even a Barnes and Noble make me want to sit in, wander, and read something new. I have spent hours upon hours inside of a Barnes and Noble and my local public library (which is constructed openly in most spaces while just having some sections split into large shelves, so people tend to stay there for long periods of time instead of just getting books and going home.) whereas I have spent only about 15 minutes total in the halls of the Bookateria and the libraries of every school that I have attended. I feel as though if I were to go into Square, I would be able to stay there for a while and read the beginnings of several books to see what I like, and then buy it after sitting there reading more and more until the inevitable problem of Mississippi being far too hot for me kicks in and causes me to go running for my car and the safe haven created by air conditioning.