You can thank our many quirky bookstores – and our steady newspaper-reading habits.
Those are two big reasons why Buffalo has risen over the past few years on an annual ranking of the “most literate” cities in America.
Buffalo now occupies the 29th position on the list, up from 47th place as recently as 2005.
The change is a reflection of how Buffalonians behave in ways that show literacy – and literariness – in daily life, according to Jack Miller, the president of Central Connecticut State University and author of the study.
“Literacy is more than how well you can read,” said Miller, who started the annual survey 10 years ago. “Or how well you learned to read. It’s whether you do.”
The study measures U.S. cities of more than 250,000 people – just the cities, not the metro areas – in six broad categories, Miller said. He uses existing databases; no new data is created.
Washington, D.C., is rated No. 1 among literate cities. Then come Seattle and Minneapolis. Pittsburgh is ranked fourth, and Denver is fifth.
St. Paul, Boston, Atlanta, St. Louis and Portland, Ore., round out the top 10.
The categories include booksellers, educational levels, Internet reading habits, libraries, periodical and magazine publications, and newspaper circulation, Miller said. Categories are further broken down into subcategories.
“For each one of those, every city gets a rank,” said Miller. “And then I combine those three ranks together for an overall ranking.”
The study is designed to show not basic levels of functional literacy, but rather how word- and idea-oriented the people of a city are in daily life.
“I call it literate behavior,” said Miller. “It means your actions – your behaviors – are such that you are engaging in things literate people do. You read books, you read newspapers, you go online and read.”
Buffalo was ranked 33.5 on the list last year and 41 the year before that.
“I think it’s a positive,” Miller said of Buffalo’s improvement. “Moving up is a good thing. Sometimes I think the old – what used to be called the ‘Rust Belt cities’ – don’t get their due.”
That feeling was echoed by one local bookstore owner, who said Buffalonians are a decidedly curious, inquisitive, appreciative audience.
“I think it’s a pretty funky city,” said Tom McDonnell, owner of Dog Ears Bookstore and Cafe in South Buffalo. “The strength of Buffalo is the people itself. We’re a very diverse city, a very friendly city, a very open city.”
“We may not have as many shows as Toronto or Broadway, but our shows are well-attended,” said McDonnell.
“We may not have as many literary offerings as Toronto and New York, but ours are well-attended. We are a curious people.”
Buffalo’s upward momentum on the annual survey is due in large part to the city’s strong results in the categories of bookstores and newspaper circulation, Miller said.
For bookstores, the study measured the number of bookstores per capita within the city, including independents, Miller said.
Per capita newspaper circulation is another key measure, he said.
“[Buffalo] was No. 11 on the bookstores and No. 12 for newspaper circulation,” Miller said.
The number of bookstores in Buffalo really struck Miller as a particularly strong result.
Ten years ago, he said, the city had five bookshops that were members of an independent booksellers group, as calculated by the survey.
In 2012, Buffalo had six such stores, Miller said. “That has maintained or gone up slightly, while everything else is going down,” Miller said, comparing Buffalo with other cities. “It’s slightly higher than it was. That’s very uncommon. Elsewhere in the country, that is not going on.”
“Atlanta had 17, now they have seven,” he said about independent bookstores.
Miller cautioned that the survey results shouldn’t be taken with unbridled optimism.
In some categories, the survey author said, most cities might be going down overall – in newspaper circulation, for instance – so while upward movement is a good thing, it also might be a case of doing the best among others that are declining faster.
“Just because your ranking moves up,” Miller said, “you could be going down slower.”
But McDonnell, the bookstore owner, said that he thinks literate – and literary – Buffalo is a fact of life here that will not change and that may even grow.
“Buffalo’s been bashed for years,” McDonnell said. “We’ve been called the armpit of the world. I don’t get it.
“You want to bash us? That’s fine. Letterman and Leno can make fun of us all they want. Move here.”
For results of the 2012 literacy rankings, go to www.ccsu.edu, and search for “literacy rankings.”