Las Vegas Sun

September 15, 2014

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Bookstores aren’t our thing, but Vegas has literary life

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Chris Morris

Las Vegas, they say, has something for everyone. But look closely. Closer still. Something vital seems to be missing from our urban and suburban streetscape.

This city famously caters to every sort of whim and taste and temptation — but you really have to hunt for a bookstore. Although neighborhoods in cities such as San Francisco, Los Angeles and New York have thriving and beloved bookstores on almost every block, here in the fastest-growing region in the country, you have to know exactly where you’re going. And when you find one, the pickings are slim.

And have you ever noticed how hard it is to find anything to read at a casino?

A quick scan of the Yellow Pages lists more than 100 bookstores in the Las Vegas area — but that list gets skinnier by half when you filter out the adult bookstores. If you count out the specialty stores — children’s books, comics, religious, recovery and self-help, and gambling — you’re pretty much left with a handful of the big chain bookstores Borders and Barnes & Noble.

We’re in the middle of Nevada Reading Week, a 30-year-old statewide initiative for Nevada teachers and librarians to celebrate reading. Through Sunday, local celebrities, parents, community members and UNLV athletes and coaches were scheduled visit local elementary schools to read to children.

According to a fascinating, if frightening, report last year by the National Endowment for the Arts, more than 40 percent of Americans under 44 did not read a single book — fiction or nonfiction — over the course of a year. (You can read all about it at www.nea.gov/research/ToRead.pdf.)

No one needs another finger-wagging, hand-wringing jeremiad on the End of Reading. But we thought we’d take this week as an occasion to look at the local landscape for readers and the literary-minded.

(If you’ve come this far, you’re with us.)

It’s hard, of course, to quantify something like reading, no matter the geographic location. It’s something most of us do privately and silently, if not secretly.

And granted, reading is not the first (or second, or 10th) thing that comes to mind when most people think of Las Vegas. The vices are all prominently displayed here, but the virtues remain more hidden.

It’s not as if you’re going to see a billboard for Joyce Carol Oates on Interstate 15 anytime soon.

The readers of Las Vegas have noticed some particularly threatening omens recently. Budget contingencies recently forced the Henderson Libraries to eliminate Sunday hours at all branches. The Albion (If Books Could Kill) used-book store closed its East Desert Road location in January. And the impending closing of the Reading Room at Mandalay Place — pretty much the only real independent bookstore in town — is going to hurt.

“Vegas is America’s great 21st-century city, but sadly, reading is not a high priority there, and it’s never likely to become one,” said Las Vegas native Charles Bock, whose debut novel, “Beautiful Children,” entered The New York Times’ best-seller list this week. “The constructs they put up are not there for your inner life. They are there to take money out of your wallet, and reading doesn’t do that. The genius of the city is that at that solitary and private moment, where you could open a book and get lost in your own private world, Vegas has every single indulgence possible waiting to tempt you to do something else.

Bock fondly remembers learning to read at the Clark County Library on Flamingo Road, alongside boyhood friend Dayvid Figler, now also a writer and Las Vegas literary scene-starter, who presents several hip author readings each year. Figler said he was struck by the plucky contrariness of planting a bookstore in a casino, even in a mall-like environment.

“We’re all going to miss The Reading Room,” he said. “But I always thought that (The Reading Room) was a strange endeavor by (owner and former Mandalay Resort Group President) Glenn Schaeffer. You’re going to get people who are going to want to bring a book up to their room. But the common (casino) wisdom here is anything to keep people out of their rooms.”

Sightings of entertainment superstars are an everyday occasion here, but author visits remain a relative rarity. Part of the problem is transit patterns, Figler said.

“It’s not a neighborhood walking city,” he said. “And when the popular authors do come to town, which is infrequently, it’s usually at the Barnes & Noble in Summerlin or the Borders in Green Valley. So unless you’re a die-hard fan of that author or you happen to live in that area, you’re not likely to go. And during the summers, people are even less willing to travel.”

We may never be known as a bookish town, but the chain stores say they are bullish on being here. The Las Vegas market is very strong for Borders, which has three “superstores” in Las Vegas and one in Henderson, plus three Borders Express stores, including one at the airport. In late March, Borders will open a “concept store” in the Town Square shopping center on Las Vegas Boulevard. The second of 14 concept stores the chain plans to open nationwide this year, the new store will include themed lifestyle genres, including travel, cooking and health. Digital centers will allow customers to download books, research family histories, print photos and create custom music CDs.

On second thought, this may be just another example of the chains’ hyping accessories and shoving the actual, physical books farther to the back of the store.

But Reader, take heart: There are many signs of literary life, if you’re willing to look. Real people live here — and real people read. This young year has already seen the blossoming of two local authors, Bock and Joe McGinniss Jr. (“The Delivery Man”) — although it may be hard to find their books on hometown shelves. The library systems in Clark County and Henderson are healthy: Circulation at Henderson libraries will grow a projected 14 percent in 2008, and more than 20,000 new library cards were issued by the system, which has a collection of more than 361,000 volumes. A new bookstore — Cheesecake and Crime: Mystery Book Shop and Cheesecake Joint — opened in Henderson this year. And there are frequent and heartening flash points of a fledgling reading culture — the advent of the Vegas Valley Book Festival downtown was a particular high point, and the seventh three-day celebration of readers and writers is taking shape for Nov. 6-8.

So here’s a thought for Nevada Reading Week — and every day. Support the literary outposts and events we’ve got and help them grow. Watch the literary listings in the weeklies. Visit your library and its Web site for events and book recommendations. Join a book club.

Buy books. Or borrow them. Read them. Or listen to them.

“Everyone knows this is just a weird environment,” Figler said. “And it’s a challenge being here kind of in the middle of the desert, without a real strong literary reputation. But wouldn’t it be great if — the way Caesars Palace sponsors the Comedy Festival — if the casinos decided they were going to inject themselves into the Vegas Valley Book Festival, and really get some real writers out here? That would be phenomenal.”

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