Ancient, epic literature appeals most when it reveals how people long ago lived their daily lives and how they thought. For instance, “Gilgamesh” explains a great deal about the Babylonians of 2100 BCE, when the scribal-librarian Sin-leqi-unninni pulled many oral tales about King Gilgamesh, ruler of Uruk in Sumeria around 2700 BCE into a single narrative. Homer did the same thing with Greek rhapsodes’ oral stories about Troy and Odysseus.

Rhapsodes were ancient Greek storytellers who possessed prodigious memories, strong voices and strong senses of dramatic timing. Jim Dewitt, the former Fairbanks attorney who’s retired in Idaho and now pursuing his passions for birding and writing the thought-provoking Wickersham’s Conscience blog, minored in epic literature in college and introduced me to rhapsodes with a book on the oral storyteller tradition of the Balkan rhapsodes that endured into the 20th century. “Rhapsode is derived from ‘rhapsoidein,’ meaning ‘to sew songs together,’” according to Oxford Dictionaries. “This word illustrates how the oral epic poet, or rhapsode, would build (and borrow from other rhapsodes) a repertoire of diverse myths, tales and jokes to include in the content of the epic poem.”

Last year the discovery of “the oldest written record of the Odyssey” was announced with premature fanfare. The Greek climate’s hard on papyrus, the most common writing medium back then, and this new discovery was an inscribed piece of pottery found near the ruined temple of Zeus at Olympia. It is actually from Roman times, around 250 CE, and others predate it by 700 years. The famed Egyptian Library at Alexandria sought to acquire the most authoritative versions of Homer’s works, and most surviving fragments are found there. It’s been proposed that the Greek clay fragment was a votive offering to Zeus by a rhapsode, partly because it’s crudely rendered, with scrawled letters and uneven lines.

“The Odyssey” is being taught at Osher Lifelong Learning, so I went to Barnes & Noble to pick up the recommended translation and asked at the information desk for assistance. The clerk hadn’t heard of “The Odyssey” and asked her smartphone to spell it for her. Apparently it had space to show only the author’s first four letters, and she had trouble locating an author named “Home.” Soon thereafter I read a NYTimes.com article, “Can Britain’s Top Bookseller Save Barnes & Noble” with great interest.

James Daunt is the bookseller in question. He resurrected the Waterstone’s bookstore chain in Britain that was facing bankruptcy when he took over in 2011. Waterstones has held its ground against Amazon, “stubbornly retaining a 25 percent market share, compared with Amazon’s 40 percent in Britain” while Barnes & Noble “has about 8 percent of the American market” versus Amazon’s 50%. Daunt accomplished this by drastically restructuring and individualizing the stores, and by filling them “with books that customers actually want to buy, as opposed to ones the publishers are eager to sell.”

Bookstore chains usually accept “co-op fees” from publishers who then dictate which titles will be stocked and their placement in every store, regardless of different geographic locations and local reading tastes. Daunt dropped Waterstone’s $38 million in co-op payments and instead negotiated a flat discount from publishers. “He likened co-op fees to crack … ‘You can’t think straight on crack,’ he said. ‘We were filling our stores with books that customers didn’t want.’” Moreover, not having to return mounds of unwanted books saved publishers millions. Today Waterstones returns 4% of the publishers’ books, while Barnes & Noble’s — which accepts co-op fees — returns at a 20%-25% rate.

Daunt also gave his store managers great leeway in selecting titles to sell and in developing their store’s personality, less commercial and more like the comfortable, personable feel of good public libraries, which are free and allow patrons to help select the library’s titles through programs like our local Adopt-An-Author program. As librarians and Mr. Daunt know, “If a store is charming and addictive enough … buying a book there isn’t just more pleasant. The book itself is better than the same book bought online.” Why are American bookstore chains in freefall? Look at public libraries and Waterstones and, as Homer wrote, “No need to wonder anymore, sir.”

Greg Hill is the former director of Fairbanks North Star Borough libraries. Contact him at 479-4344.