I love bookstores. I also love 1962 VW Bugs, my vinyl copy of the Beatle’s White Album, and coffee that costs less than a dollar a cup. But despite what John Lennon wrote, love isn’t all you need, at least not when you’re running a commercial enterprise.
And one fact that's rarely mentioned in all the recent articles raising the alarm about bookstores as an endangered species is that a bookstore is a commercial enterprise. It survives by selling you books. And when another seller does that better, it’s going to succeed. It deserves to. Yes, I’m talking about the 800-pound gorilla, Amazon. They figured out how to improve your buying experience with ratings, reviews, and the opportunity to read a solid sample of the book before you plunk down your money. And they offer 11,000,000+ titles, compared to a chain bookstore’s 30,000.
Another fact that’s often overlooked is that reading is a solitary activity, not a social one. Journalists wax nostalgic about the neighborhood bookstore as a cozy sanctuary in which people gather on comfy furniture for a leisurely read. Really? When was the last time you did long, leisurely reading in a bookstore? In my case, never. And I’m a voracious reader. People browse, skim, and explore in a store, but most serious reading happens at home.
Then there’s the cost. With the average hardcover book priced at $26 (19€), bookstores are becoming a rich person’s luxury. I recently asked fellow members of an authors-and-readers Facebook group how they felt about bookstores, libraries, and e-books. And the overwhelming response was that everyone loves the feel of a “real” book – but most use an e-reader. As one put it, “e-books are a much cheaper alternative than a new paperback, and as for hardback books – well, [you'd] need to take out a loan!”
The sad-demise articles also bemoan the loss of bookstores as community centers where authors lecture, kindly old ladies read books to small children, and book clubs meet to discuss great literature. Public libraries deliver all that and much more – for free. Nowadays, free public libraries offer everyone the joy of an endless supply of books, and, in the American system at least, e-books, audio books, movies, music, technology courses, assistance with college applications, video games, online language courses, voter information, and so much more. They remind us that words matter, that life is bigger than we could possibly have imagined, and that, as writer William Nicholson put it, "We read to know that we are not alone."
While working on this post, I was corresponding with Alicia Bay Laurel, author of the New York Times bestseller Living on the Earth, published in 1971 and updated in 2003. When I was in college in Berkeley, everyone had her book on their shelf, right next to Ram Dass’s Be Here Now and Our Bodies, Ourselves. I had long since lost my copy (which come to think of it, belonged to my roommate) and wanted the new edition. Since it’s all about living organically, in harmony with the universe, it’s naturally not available electronically. Our public library system had both print versions, but I wanted to own this one. So I thought, “Great, it’s been ages since I shopped in that cozy, little independent bookstore in my neighborhood.”
The clerk had never heard of the book, and after searching online, he declared it impossible to get. So I went to a larger independent bookstore, and they directed me to “the guy with the white hair at the back desk.” He and I shared a delightful fifteen minutes reminiscing about the hippie movement, campus unrest in Berkeley, Ram Dass, and Alicia’s book. And then he also checked his computer and declared her book out of print and unavailable.
So I went on Amazon, which offered the original in paperback, and the updated edition in hardbound and paperback, in new, used, and collectable editions. I bought a used copy (which seemed more in the spirit of the book) for $11.25 and it arrived on my doorstep in two days with free shipping.
And people wonder why bookstores aren’t making it.
2/6/2014 09:43:59 am
Not to mention free downloads from the library. My I Pad and my MP3 player for books on tape for the gym are full of great stuff.
2/7/2014 08:59:19 am
You're so right, Sally. The libraries have tons of great audio books. When I lived in Ohio and drove long distances every day, I never left home without a book on tape for the car. Nowadays, you can take them anywhere, on just about any device. It's enough to make you actually look forward to time on the treadmill!
2/6/2014 10:21:55 am
Insightful blog. Time marches on even if we don't want it to. I use my Ipad now for a lot of my reading even though I am worried because I have heard it is bad for the eyes. Also, I have been listening to a lot of podcasts. My new favorite is NPR's "Snap Judgement" where you get to hear people tell stories. Ten years ago, I couldn't have imagined finding a treasure trove of tales to listen to so easily tapped into.
2/7/2014 09:05:33 am
I'd never heard of Snap Judgement, but I just went on and played the first few minutes of "The Stranger" and I'm already hooked. Thanks for the hot tip, Steve! This is the sort of thing that reminds me why I love modern technology! As for reading on the iPad, they say the backlighting can tire your eyes, which is one reason Rich and I use Kindles. You might want to try one and see if you find it more comfortable.
2/6/2014 11:06:35 am
Finally, a sane assessment of what is. Those who resist change seem to suffer more and my heart goes out to them. And I agree that public libraries continue to serve both authors and readers. @Steve: Thanks for the heads-up about NPR's Snap Judgment. I love so many of their podcasts and had never heard of that one.
2/7/2014 09:09:23 am
It's hard not to get emotional about books and bookstores, but as the comments on this post show, our lives are richer for the new technology, not poorer. We're no longer restricted to the selection of books carried by a small store or a large corporate chain. And that's good news for all readers and writers!
2/6/2014 02:43:14 pm
Well said, Karen. All of us, maturing children of the '60s and '70s included, need to recognize nostalgia for what it is and progress for what it offers. I'd add newspapers to bookstores when thinking about changes in delivery models, pricing, convenience...and I love sitting with a newspaper in hand each morning, but more and more it's an iPad rather than newsprint.
2/7/2014 09:14:19 am
You're so right, Mike. I have spent countless happy hours reading newspapers, often passing entire winter Sundays engrossed in the New York Times. But like you, I mostly get my news electronically now. I love the way I can follow up on a story by clicking links and exploring the topic in many directions. And I don't have stacks of newspapers to haul out each week for recycling!
2/7/2014 09:17:43 am
Glad you liked the post, Lindsay! Yes, public libraries are amazing resources. You never know what you're going to find there. And being free, you can take a chance on lesser-known books and other materials.
2/7/2014 06:17:05 pm
Libraries and universities still buy the 1971 second edition of Living on the Earth, as a hardback, directly from Random House. I know this because I still receive royalties from these sales. As a historical document of a bygone era, it is required reading for some college courses. How cool is that? I'm history, and I'm still a babe. OK, I'm a babe about to get Medicare.
2/9/2014 04:26:31 pm
Alicia, I'm delighted to hear that college students are still reading your book; it's one for the ages. I probably should have gotten the book from you directly, but I rather enjoyed the quest. And now that I have my copy, we will definitely have to inscribe each other's books! I'm looking forward to it.
2/9/2014 01:50:19 am
Thanks for reminding people that libraries are the best! I have to say though that from a librarian point of view, in Spain, a bookstore run by a real "librero" who is knowledgeable about books, publishers, editions, etc., it's a luxury, and real relief to have. I purchase all the foreign language books for the library in Amazon.es (English, French, German, Arabic, and Chinese) which is great since finding a distributor in Spain that can provide this service without charging you an arm and a leg is impossible. Our library has increased its foreign language material thanks to Amazon.
2/9/2014 04:33:52 pm
Pia, you are so fortunate to have a friend and resource like Julio Roguera! The last time I tried to ask where to find a particular author's books in El Corte Inglés they looked at me as if I'd made an improper suggestion, shook their heads, and explained that books are shelved by publisher, and I'd have to check every section of the store on my own. And then they turned away and went on chatting with each other. . .
2/10/2014 01:04:54 am
No kidding! Something similar happen to me in Corte Inglés! I asked for a tittle that I knew it was not common, and the lady immediately said "we don´t have it". I asked her how did she know, since she didn´t look in the database. She just told me they didn´t. I told her I was a librarian, and I needed to look in the catalog when a user asked for a book since I didn´t know by memory all the books the library has. I was trying to be nice and told her that it was OK to look in the computer. She gave me a furious look, and I gave up!
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