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The Small-Time Bookshop: Gone but Not Forgotten

One of the more agreeable spots in my hometown was Barrett's Bookstore, which was located on a shady street of small shops.

It was a place you felt totally comfortable wandering in to browse and perhaps dream a little. Whenever you walked through the door, you'd feel as if you'd entered your second home. Mrs. Barrett probably knew your parents. She also knew when to leave you alone to your thoughts and when to help.

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When she did help, she could open horizons for a kid. ''Did you see this table?'' she might ask quietly. ''It has a book or two by Willa Cather.''

''Well, no,'' Mrs. Barrett would concede when pressed, ''Cather didn't write about dogs or horses as such, like Albert Payson Terhune or C.W. Anderson. But I think,'' she'd say, ''you'll like the way Cather wrote about people. Here, have a look,'' she'd urge, handing me a new edition that smelled irresistibly of fresh pages and fresh promise. She might even lend a book to a young future customer, knowing that he or she was being ushered into a lifetime of reading and that someday another store, another town, another generation would reap the rewards.

Barrett's Bookstore is long gone, along with the street it was on - both casualties of urban renewal. But I've seen signs in the past few years that I am not alone in cherishing shops like that and the world they represented. ''Small, expertly staffed bookstores with a knowledgeable staff'' read one ad in The New York Times not long ago. I've seen other efforts to recapture the feeling of small bookstores and other establishments.

It's a marketing effort, of course, but whatever the motivation, I'll take it. In today's big discount stores you're left alone just the way you sometimes were at Mrs. Barrett's, but the feeling is different. It's one of isolation in a landscape of products. If you need information, it's like finding help in the desert, and when you get it, it tends to come from decent salespeople who nonetheless have little interest in the store, much less the person visiting it.

Mentally, they keep you at arm's length, the way people do when they are packed into a subway and avoid eye contact to preserve that decent ''distance,'' which physically is not possible. Ask a question in the big stores of today, and the response is often what you'd expect if you'd asked directions from a courteous stranger approached on the street. If he or she knows the answer, great. If not, well.... The college kids at book chains like Booksmiths and Barnes & Noble are smart and helpful, but they simply are not part of the old order of personal interest.

So perhaps a quiet, gentle revolution has begun, a campaign to retain a vestige of the proprietary instinct, that humane spirit that seemed to hang over shops a few decades ago. You'll know the minute you walk into one of the new shops. It's almost tangible, the mental focus on the individual, the kind of attitude still found in a few restaurants in places like Montreal and some parts of Europe.

A bookshop is the ideal place to start the revolution. A new generation of people can discover those same lessons of gracious guidance that so many young people took away from Barrett's. A few years ago I stopped by the spot where Barrett's had stood, remembering. Someone else happened along at the same time and also stopped. We glanced at each other, knowing why each was there, sharing a heritage but leaving each to his thoughts, just the way Mrs. Barrett would have.

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I pulled away first, as we nodded knowingly to each other. We both realized what values had been gained there, and also realized they were values that could be handed on.

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