Like many people who follow publishing news, I’ve been reading about the Department of Justice’s suing Apple and five of the Big Six for collusion and price fixing. But while I was trying for what seems like the tenth time to truly understand the agency model, I came across this article: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/04/18/business/economy/competition-needs-protection.html?pagewanted=all. I basically came away from this article wanting to argue with the author for insinuating that not much would be lost if brick-and-mortar bookstores disappeared. Apparently, books can bounce back just like the music industry did when CDs died and iTunes took Virgin’s place. The article was essentially how books would survive the seemingly imminent collapse of the publishing industry as we know it (that might have been a little melodramatic, but according to some the publishing apocalypse is coming), but instead of worrying over the lack of middle men in self publishing, I became concerned that Mr. Porter thinks that we don’t need bookstores. Or books.
I’ve already waxed nostalgic over how much I will always value a book in my hands, even if I do own a Kindle and read for pleasure on it. And yes, I’ve gone on a bit of a defense of bookstores, but I have a new, impassioned defense for the bookstore now that I have read this article. This article, http://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/31/nyregion/31barnes.html, mentions some of what we will lose if we abandon the bookstore and leave its shelves derelict for future generations. Browsing online is nothing, absolutely nothing, like browsing in person–walking between the shelves, looking through the alphabet to find the author, running your hands over the cover of the book, opening to the first pages. Yes, I know you can read the first few pages of most books on Amazon, but you can’t stumble across a book the same way you can at a bookstore. You type in a search term, and then toward the bottom of the page are similar titles, and if you have an account, Amazon will recommend books to you (Amazon, if you’re reading, get out of my inbox). But you can’t find a book that catches your eye, or find the staff recommendations, or browse through the buy 2, get 1 free section or the noteworthy paperbacks table. And like Ms. Bosman’s article suggests, it’s not just the books that attract people. The cafes and the magazines draw people in for an afternoon of sipping a drink and flipping through glossy pages. Where will author readings be if the bookstore disappeared? Where will we go for a quiet afternoon?
I once went on a first date in a Barnes and Noble (my hometown is pretty generic and lacking in bookstore imagination). It was a great first date, and although the guy and I have long since parted ways, I fondly think back to that October afternoon and how we showed each other our favorite titles, discovered our shared deep love of history and shared fear of the Christian inspiration section, and realized just how much we liked each other. I’ll probably find other places to go on dates in the future, and my boyfriend doesn’t lack imagination, but just the fact that bookstore provided a place for a romance to blossom shows that bookstores are more than online showrooms or repositories.
Consider a used bookstore, where treasures lay hidden in haphazard, pell-mell shelving situations, where great finds are a fraction of the cost, where you don’t know what you’ll find on any given day. It’s a bit like a grab bag bookstore, where you’re depending on what people are happening to sell that bookstore and what hasn’t walked out the door that day. They don’t keep stuff in stock; stock finds them and stays there for a little while before disappearing and maybe one day again returning. No such adventure is to be found searching online. No, the surprise and joy of the bookstore comes from the discovery, the waiting for the unknown to grab you and pull you into a new world.