Serendipity engines

In commerce, there’s an incalculable difference between search and discovery. Discovery requires serendipity, and there’s no better source of serendipity than independent bookstores.

By Brad Berens

Wednesday, I was in Eugene, a small Oregon city a couple hours south of Portland. I dropped into the legendary Smith Family Bookstore, where I found a $4.00 copy of Violent Spring by Gary Phillips, which my friend Michael Estrin had raved about in a recent issue of his newsletter. I snapped it up.

At the cash register, I saw a small, colorful pile of copies of another book, A Few Rules for Predicting the Future: an Essay by Octavia E. Butler with art by Manzel Bowman. This is a beautiful little artifact by Chronicle Books that reprints a 2000 essay Butler wrote for Essence magazine. With a bit of internet searching, you can find the text of the essay online, but I didn’t know that at the time, and I wanted to read the piece.

More importantly, I wanted to reward the folks at Smith Family Bookstore for thoughtfully curating that book and having it at checkout. “This is an impulse purchase,” I sighed to the clerk. “You’re the first person to have that impulse,” she replied. (You can buy it via Smith or, which supports independent bookstores.)

I’m glad I bought the book. Butler was a brilliant writer of near-future science fiction dystopias (something that I know a little bit about myself), and an inside look at her methods for creating those broken worlds intrigued me. On top of that, after reading the essay I can see why Chronicle chose to preserve and republish it: the essay explains how this cultural moment got to Trump.

Writing about her process for Parable of the Talents, a novel about how a country descends into fascism, Butler writes

I wanted to understand the lies that people have to tell themselves when they either quietly or joyfully watch their neighbors ruined, spirited away, killed. Different versions of this horror have happened again and again in history. They’re still happening in places like Rwanda, Bosnia, Kosovo and East Timor, wherever one group of people permits its leaders to convince them that for their own protection, for the safety of their families and the security of their country, they must get their enemies, those alien others who until now were their neighbors.

Despite my interest in Butler and in dystopian fiction, I don’t think that I would have ordered the book had I simply run across a link online. It took a slower, friction filled moment, standing at checkout in a physical bookstore, juggling my wallet and the cheap paperback copy of the Phillips novel, for me to notice the colorful little book on the counter in front of me and linger long enough to pick it up.

Bookstores are serendipity engines. E-commerce is efficient for helping us get things we know we want at a fair price, but it sucks at the kind of slow discovery that I experienced at Smith Family Bookstore.

Then, yesterday, it happened again. La Profesora and I went on a brief holiday to Hood River and Mosier (a small city and a small town an hour or so east of Portland) to celebrate our wedding anniversary. After we checked out of our AirBNB, we hiked the Indian Creek Trail that snakes across the hills above Hood River. Here’s an image from our hike:


As we hiked, we noticed a long line of tightly connected logs running alongside the trail. What were they? A pipe? Something to hold the hill together to protect the houses above the trail from erosion? Indian Creek Trail has several points at which you easily walk down into town, so we decided to grab lunch (at Broder Øst, delicious) and then wander over to Waucoma Bookstore, a must-visit on any jaunt to Hood River, to search for answers about the logs.

At Waucoma, we met Ryan, a charming young man who has only ever worked in bookstores. He immediately answered our question: yes, it was an old pipe from an early refrigeration system a century plus back. He and La Profesora then took a tour through Waucoma’s thoughtfully curated offerings on the history of the Columbia River Valley, whereupon she bought…

Columbia River Basketry: Gift of the Ancestors, Gift of the Earth by Mary Dodds Schlick
Building the Columbia River Highway: They Said it Couldn’t be Done by Peg Willis

…and an unrelated book that Ryan raved about:

Glaciers, a Novel by Alexis M. Smith.

He also mentioned Stubborn Twig by Lauren Kessler, but they were out of stock.

(I’m not providing links because you should order these books online from Waucoma.)

I picked up the new book by Ray Kurzweil, which I mentioned last week.

Our discovery moment at Waucoma was similar to but distinct from my discovery moment at Smith Family a few days earlier.

In Hood River, we were leaning into a particular frame (Erving Goffman’s helpful term) of our collective identity: we were on vacation, celebrating our anniversary in a particular place. La Profesora’s interest in the history of the Columbia River Valley wasn’t new, but our surroundings activated and intensified it.

Plus, buying and reading those books gave us a chance to hold onto our vacation vibe in a different way than buying a t-shirt or a bottle of wine would have. Reading a book takes time: it’s full of friction in the best possible way. A t-shirt would quickly lose its connotation of “our holiday in Hood River and Mosier” and become just another garment. A bottle of wine would quickly be empty and recycled.

Context in brick and mortar bookshops like Waucoma adds depth and flavor to commerce in a way that simply does not happen online. If you hand me a book that I bought in a bookstore, then most of the time I remember which bookstore. That isn’t the case with things I buy on Bookshop or Amazon.

Coda: the lost bookstores of Los Angeles

The contextual, serendipity generating quality of bookstores is one reason why I get wistful when I visit family in Los Angeles.

Decades ago, L.A. was a great book town. Just in the San Fernando Valley, driving east on Ventura from The Bookie Joint on Reseda, past Pages and Alpha Books in Tarzana, past Encino Books and the B. Dalton, past Elton’s shop near Hazeltine (I am sad I can’t remember the shop’s name, but I can see his face), past Dangerous Visions and Scene of the Crime near Woodman, past the cluster of Dutton’s locations in Studio City, and onto a happy, dense knot of used bookstores in Burbank. Over the hill in the city, Santa Monica sported Midnight Special, The Change of Hobbit, and Los Angeles proper had dozens more.

Crown Books killed independent bookstores in Los Angeles and elsewhere. Then Borders and Barnes and Noble killed Crown, and then Amazon killed Borders. Barnes and Noble is hanging on… phew!

Today, there’s Book Soup on Sunset, Diesel in Brentwood, Chevalier’s in Hancock Park, The Last Bookstore downtown, Lost Books in Montrose, and a few remaining Barnes and Noble locations. There’s not much else. If you’re willing to haul to Pasadena, then glorious Vroman’s still holds the title of best bookshop in SoCal, but it’s a long drive.

It is a painful irony that Los Angeles, the storytelling capital of the world, has so few bookstores.


Brad Berens is the Center’s strategic advisor and a senior research fellow. He is principal at Big Digital Idea Consulting. You can learn more about Brad at, follow him on Post and/or LinkedIn, and subscribe to his weekly newsletter (only some of his columns are syndicated here).



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July 3, 2024