Congregating at Commonplace

Bookcases and a dog inside Commonplace Books in Oklahoma City.

In midtown Oklahoma City, independent businesses are thriving off of the community’s desire for a new approach to urban living. Emerging from that environment, Commonplace Books sits in a brick building—an Oklahoma classic—on a quiet street corner, ready to be part of something new.

“Ultimately, it’s not even about the books,” explained owner Ben Nockels. “Everyone that walks in that door has a story, and we want to intersect with that to a positive effect.” The bookstore was something that arose out of the community—Nockels doesn’t see Commonplace as something that belongs to him but rather as belonging to the people who browse the shelves. An independent bookstore was something he felt the community needed and deserved, a mind-set permeating every aspect of the store.

It is not the kind of store where you walk in with a book in mind and walk out with it under your arm. The volume of titles isn’t the same as what is available at a commercial chain, but Commonplace Books isn’t trying to compete with that. Opting instead for a smaller selection focused on quality, Nockels curates the store himself, ensuring that every book contains something worth taking home.

He then groups the books together not just by categories we’ve come to expect but in ways that point back to the browser: “achiever,” “activist,” “host.” Nockels explains that “this way, when people look at the shelves, they see things that they can self-identify with.” In shifting the framework within which the books are organized, genres become blurred and readers find themselves opened to the possibility of books that they may have never considered otherwise.

This organization and careful curation transform a visit to the store from simply shopping to an experience. The store has custom-tailored candles, the names of which perfectly pin down the sensation of browsing the shelves lining the mint-green floors: “unhurried wonder.”

As part of this experience, the store holds a back-and-forth discourse with the community, promoting mutual intellectual health. True to its name, Commonplace Books is a place where people congregate. The store frequently holds book readings and signings that bring in prominent speakers to lead discussions. Nockels wants the store to listen and adapt to the community, but it also has messages of its own.

Part of a wall stands in the middle of the store, covered on one side by bookshelves and on the other by paint. Two hands clasp together—one black, one white—next to the words “Hey! Love thy neighbor. We’re all in this together.” Nockels left the wall to be a place where the store could leave a statement, and customers can expect it to change depending on what the community needs to hear.

Photo by Merleyn Bell

Reid Bartholomew is an assistant language teacher on the JET Programme teaching English in Japan’s Aomori Prefecture. A graduate of the University of Oklahoma, he studies contemporary Japanese literature.