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Volunteer Nathan goes to Atomic Bookstore for the first time.

Without bookstores, where would Woody Allen and Diane Keaton have discussed the horrible/miserable dichotomy of life?

I used to roam Borders and Barnes & Noble, walking away with stacks of mass produced paperbacks. As my reading habits led me to slightly more obscure works, I started going to independent stores like Politics & Prose and Kramerbooks. I also began preferring nicer bindings and caring for the aesthetic impact of each book as an artifact. Sometimes, I found selections at used book stores like Normals and Wonderbooks.

Eventually, my purchases started occurring online at Abebooks and Amazon. Online, I can find my favorite bindings and editions for the best price. I cannot find books at physical stores that I cannot find online. So why did I recently venture up to Hampden in Baltimore to peruse Atomic Books? What’s the point?

I went to Atomic because I never been before, and I enjoy browsing unknown inventory. While Amazon displays new thumbnails and surprising new suggestions, a new bookstore envelops me in literary culture. Atomic’s slant is toward the visual. Their shelves are dominated by an impressive selection of art and comic books and graphic novels. They have glass displays with colorful art toys and several rotating kiosks for zines.

Their fiction section is relatively small, mostly concerning contemporary experimental and black humor. I selected David Markson’s Wittgenstein’s Mistress, a novel I’ve had my eye on ever since reading David Foster Wallace’s praise for it. I appreciate a store not bothering itself with trying to please every possible customer. Atomic’s shelves act more like a suggestion stream: if you like this book, you will like all these books. But if you’re not a fan of a certain narrative temperament they champion, you might not be an Atomic customer.

This articulated environment is effective for readers to explore their tastes beyond what big chains and online sites offer. After recognizing the fiction section as a collection of like-minded work, I browsed sections less familiar to me thinking they were likewise related, and this made me more comfortable branching out of my comfort zone.

Atomic, like most indie bookstores, is fully loaded with work by local writers. They stock and feature books from Publishing Genius, Baltimore/Hampden zines and comics and books/movies by John Waters (of course), just to name a few. Atomic also hosts events aimed at their intended clientele, and the bookstore serves as avenue for bringing specific communities together.

I exited the store with Wittgenstein’s Mistress in hand and smiled at finding yet another great bookstore in the D.C./Baltimore area. With so many immediate benefits to purchasing my books online, I let slack my actual contribution to my local booksellers. Going to Atomic was a pleasant reminder of what the bookstores can offer besides of the books themselves.

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