Like a beaten dog wagging its tail as it returns to the master for one more slap, I keep returning to Barnes and Nobles, hoping for a dry bone or at least a condescending pat on the head. Mostly getting the slap. I’m wondering lately how much longer B&N can hold on to the subtitle of their name with a straight face. I admit that for purists Barnes and Nobles was never much of a bookseller in the first place, the corporate ambiance just a bit too antiseptic for the crowd that prefers their books straight, preferably with the slightest scent of dust and mold. But as a person that has spent the entirety of his life in flyover country, Barnes and Nobles and its recently deceased cousin Borders seemed something like salvation. If the ambiance was corporate, the books were real, and they were many. If there were too few from independent publishers, there were more than enough good books to last any reader a lifetime, and I spent many hours on my own wandering the shelves, feeling that ache that all readers know, the realization that there are too many good books and one lifetime will never be enough.
Barnes and Nobles became a family affair for us. One way I induced the habit of reading in my kids was to promise them I’d take them to B&N anytime they finished a book and buy them another one. The ploy paid off. My kids read voraciously, son and daughter alike, putting the lie to the notion that kids today have to choose between reading and surfing. My kids do both just fine, and I think this is attributable in no small part to the fact our family time together was spent wandering the endless aisles of bookstores, imaging the endless possibilities, what the world would be like if we only had enough time to read them all. Other families go on kayak trips; we read books. I’m not sorry for the tradeoffs.
All that is mostly over, for paper books anyway. My son and I still go over to Barnes and Nobles, but the last three trips we’ve come out saying the same thing to one another without prompting–worthless. Aisle after Aisle of bookshelves in our local store are being replaced by toys and tchotchkes designed to…..do what? It’s not even clear. At least when the place was dominated by books it was clear that this was where you went for books. Now it seems like a vaguely upscale Walmart with a vast toy section. I’m waiting for the clothing section to open up soon.
I don’t think we should underestimate the consequence of these changes for booksellers and bookreaders. Although it is the case that readers will still be able to get books via your local Amazon.com, the place of books is changing in radical ways. The advent of e-books is completely reordering the business of bookselling–and i would say the culture of books as well. An article in the Economist notes that books are following in the sucking vortex that has swallowed the music and newspaper industries all but whole. Among the biggest casualties is the books and mortar bookstore, and this is of no small consequence to the effort to sell books in general:
Perhaps the biggest problem, though, is the gradual disappearance of the shop window. Brian Murray, chief executive of HarperCollins, points out that a film may be released with more than $100m of marketing behind it. Music singles often receive radio promotion. Publishers, on the other hand, rely heavily on bookstores to bring new releases to customers’ attention and to steer them to books that they might not have considered buying. As stores close, the industry loses much more than a retail outlet. Publishers are increasingly trying to push books through online social networks. But Mr Murray says he hasn’t seen anything that replicates the experience of browsing a bookstore.
Confession, I actually enjoy browsing Amazon, and I read book reviews endlessly. But I think this article is right that there is nothing quite like the experience of browsing the shelves at a bookstore, in part because it is a kind of communal event. It is not that there are more choices–there aren’t, there are far more choices online. Nor is it necessarily that things are better organized. I think I have a better chance of finding things relevant to my interests through a search engine than I do by a chance encounter in the stack. And, indeed, The Strand is a book store that leaves me vaguely nauseous and dizzy, both because there is too much choice and there is too little organization. But the physical fact of browsing with one’s companions through the stacks, the chance encounter with a book you had heard about but never seen, the excitement of discovery, the anxious calculations–at least if you are an impoverished graduate student or new parent–as to whether you have enough cash on hand to make the purchase now or take a chance that the book will disappear if you wait. All of these get left behind in the sterility of the online exchange. The bookstore is finally a cultural location, a location of culture, where bookminded people go for buzz they get from being around other book-minded people. I can get my books from Amazon, and I actually don’t mind getting them via e-books, avoiding all the fuss of going down and having a face to face transaction with a seller. But that face to face is part of the point, it seems to me. Even though book-buying has always fundamentally been about an exchange of cash for commodity, the failure to see that it was also more than that is the cultural poverty of a world that amazon creates. With books stores dying a rapid death and libraries close upon their heels, I’m feeling a little like a man without a country, since the country of books is the one to which I’ve always been most loyal.
I am, of course, sounding old and crotchety. The same article in the Economist notes that IKEA is now changing their bookshelf line in the anticipation that people will no longer use them for books.
TO SEE how profoundly the book business is changing, watch the shelves. Next month IKEA will introduce a new, deeper version of its ubiquitous “BILLY” bookcase. The flat-pack furniture giant is already promoting glass doors for its bookshelves. The firm reckons customers will increasingly use them for ornaments, tchotchkes and the odd coffee-table tome—anything, that is, except books that are actually read.
I suspect this may be true. Bookshelves and books alike may become craft items, things produced by those curious folks who do things by hand, items that you can only buy at craft fairs and auctions, something you can’t find at Wal-Mart, or Barnes and Nobles.