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The Literal Landscape
by Simmons B. Buntin, Editor/Publisher, Terrain.org

Anonymous Metropolis: A Patchwork Quilt

    You know I’m
       the result of
forces beyond my control
I don’t hold it against you
I said

      — A.R. Ammons, from “The Wide Land”

It has been a wonderful—and wonderfully violent—monsoon season in the desert now spreading before me like the colors and texture of a Navajo blanket. Just this evening, there’s a subtle volley of lightning in the lurid green clouds above the Santa Catalinas, the shadow of the east’s Rincon Mountains shrinking with the rise of the thinly veiled moon. To the northwest—toward the city that spreads its asphalt tendrils from the century-dry Santa Cruz River, toward the city that is Tucson—green gives to brown gives to orange: a blanket of a different type and color altogether.

In this metropolis of Tucson, there is a boulevard that stretches east to west, or west to east. It is not a grand boulevard, though it spans the city’s commerce and academies. There are, at the university, tunnels beneath it. There are some houses of history, now converted to professional offices, in the palo verde shadows of thin paseos beside it. There are uncountable retail centers: power centers and drive-thrus, restaurants and supermarkets. And of course there are strip malls upon strip malls.

In one such mall there is an independent bookshop that opened on October 1, 2000. Its goal then was “to be a general interest bookstore with a strong commitment to supporting local writers and the Tucson community at large, as well as to provide a space where ‘outside the mainstream’ books, ideas, and individuals could flourish.”

Five years and 21 days later, Reader’s Oasis—at 3400 East Speedway Boulevard—is closing. The owners admit that a sluggish economy and a nationwide downturn in book sales, as well as increasing online and chain store competition, are too much to overcome. This news is like a stifling wool blanket on a Sonoran summer night.

Bookstore icon.

To the surprise and certain delight of acquaintances, I recently removed myself from political life in the Civano community where I live. I turned the keel and rudder of the neighborhood association over to another neighbor. It floats soundly. I stepped back from the jagged discourse with the home developer to the south. The plans are done, beyond saving. I resigned from the consortium of dealers and players that is our regional planning and coordinating committee. It plans and commits just fine without me.

This, I’m discovering, is freedom quite divine. Time for family and friends and writing and the intricacies of the desert—the sphinx moth courting the salvia at dusk, the quick banded gecko snapping spiders from the ledge.

But it didn’t take long to draw me in again. Our fledgling farmers market, it seems, was about to close for the summer, and perhaps forever. Certainly not, I cried. A Sunday farmers market can be a model of sustainability, that ever-elusive triangle of economy, environment, and culture. With no one to take the lead, I stepped forward with another neighbor, and together we have steered the new Civano Artisans and Farmers Market down a safer road. Still young and elastic, it’s a success nonetheless, and keeps on growing. The market full of produce and regional delicacies and handmade crafts fits like a blanket on a newborn. It’s just right for this place.

Bookstore icon.

Among the promises and offers of today’s riotous mail, I discovered a credit card bill stamped with a $15 late fee, a notable amount for a total balance under $100. Still, the penalty is something I’m willing to pay, this once, because it offsets the 15% I saved on my first purchase when I signed up for the card in the first place.

More importantly, it helped deliver some cherished books: The Apple That Astonished Paris by Billy Collins, Owls and Other Fantasies by Mary Oliver, and New and Selected Poems, 1956-1996, by Philip Appleman, among others.

Indeed, the virtual card is securely hardwired to my Internet account, so there’s no need to slide it from my wallet when I “Click here” to order. That saves me seconds, at least.

Except: As I browsed the top of the bill, I felt a sudden constriction, like waking from a nightmare, twisted tightly in the damp tangle of my sheets and blanket. My charges, you see, are from Amazon.com, the world’s largest online book retailer.

Bookstore icon.

Reader’s Oasis’ closing is disheartening for many reasons: It offered an excellent selection of books from local and Southwestern authors. It hosted an admirable events calendar packed with author readings and signings. The owners were great supporters of local literary arts in a town chock full of literary talent.

Yet I’m sad also because the closing of every independent bookstore, every local restaurant, every unique corner market, is a compounding loss of Tucson’s—or any location’s—sense of place.

With our streets lined with Barnes & Nobles, Applebee’s, Starbucks, McDonald’s, how will we tell Tucson from Tacoma from Tulsa? By the one lone saguaro we save in a roundabout—yet by doing so cut off circulation to its roots? By a scrubby patch of pseudo desert, the original rocks replaced by obnoxiously red gravel, the creosote and brittlebush cut for blooming birds of paradise, beautiful but not native? By the new signs pointing to downtown, el centro, but directing me through block after anonymous block of big boxes and faceless strip malls that could be anywhere and everywhere?

The local bookstore, like the farmers market, helps define where we are, and therefore who we are. All of that is easily undone, as this closing portrays, by the borderless and seemingly limitless plains of the Internet and sites like Amazon.com. The incentives to purchase online are plenty: discounted credit, hassle-free shopping, one-click purchasing, easy home delivery.

What we don’t receive is true interaction, even with live online support, chat rooms, real-time blogging. What we can’t receive is a physical sense of place. We can purchase books and electronics and even blankets online, but we cannot purchase atmosphere, nor aroma, nor the casual conversation between aisles of books.

We can’t live online, but we’re learning that our best local haunts can die for our trying.

Bookstore icon.

I’m delighted by poetry websites that feature the spoken in addition to the written word. Hearing a poet read her work takes the art form to the next level. Yet broadband connection or not, a two-inch-wide QuickTime window doesn’t replace a metal chair five rows back from the live poet, breathing and reading and making direct eye contact. So perhaps it serves me right—with my Amazon.com wish list and shopping cart and credit card—that my own poetry reading, once scheduled for Reader’s Oasis, has been canceled.

Void of local bookstores and farmers markets and any place that is visceral in design and dynamic, the Internet has defaulted to the anonymous metropolis that our cities seem so eager to become. That virtual credit card, then, doesn’t seem like such a good deal. It can’t keep my blanket dry for all this revealing rain.


Simmons B. Buntin is the founder and editor-in-chief of Terrain.org: A Journal of the Built & Natural Environments. With Ken Pirie, he is the author of the new book Unsprawl: Remixing Spaces as Places (Planetizen Press, 2013). His books of poetry are Riverfall (2005) and Bloom (2010), both published by Ireland's Salmon Poetry. Recent work has appeared in North American Review, ISLE, Versal, Orion, Hawk & Handsaw, High Desert Journal, and Kyoto Journal. Catch up with him at www.SimmonsBuntin.com.
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