I was in New York last weekend, and one of my favorite things to do there is explore little independent bookstores in the East Village. I live in Fort Worth, Texas, so most of my bookstore experiences are at Barnes & Noble or Half Price (and Borders from time to time back in the day). Although the large chain bookstores are great for book browsing of popular titles and seeing the newest and bestselling books immediately in your face, there’s something enticing and entrancing about diving into a little shop–maybe a converted studio apartment–and finding books that may be out of print, that may not find their way into popular bookstores (small press distribution, the odd textbook, etc.) and digging deep into the shelves to find gems. For example, I found a deluxe copy of Nicholas and Alexandra by Robert K. Massie. I was sorely tempted to buy it before realizing how low on funds I was. These treasure troves dot the urban landscape of Manhattan, and I wish I had more time to go spelunking in the petite mines of indie bookstores, the shelves shafts of papery mines.
Occasionally these stores will hold events for readings and book signings. Up until recently, many of these events were free and open to the public. Now, however, bookstores are charging for admission to readings and signings–often you have to buy the book, buy a gift card for a certain amount, or pay a small fee. The reason? Sales in bookstores are decreasing while online sales are increasing. I read an article in the New York Times that details this new trend in bookstore events (for the full article see: www.nytimes.com/2011/06/22/business/media/22events.html). Part of the issue involves the fact that many customers now treat bookstores as libraries or a place to browse before going online and buying a cheaper e-reader version of the same book. Customers will walk in, browse, write down titles, and leave without buying anything. This practice is part of the reason that brick-and-mortar stores have seen book sales suffer in print while online sales have increased dramatically. Stores must now turn to other sources of revenue in order to stay afloat.
While bookstores are important, as are books in print (no one wants a Fahrenheit 451 situation on our hands), the charge to get in to events hurts those who have already bought a book or can’t afford to pay admission such as students or the elderly, and authors worry that they will lose potential readers. However, these events are often publicized and might boost book sales anyway. Publishers resent the fact that bookstores charge when they are the ones footing the bill for the author and the production of the book itself. But the main concern remains that charging will discourage readers, seem unfriendly to the public, and hinder the community sentiment so often found in independent bookstores.
I see both sides. Hosting an event costs serious money, and bookstores must look for other sources of revenue when so many sales are going online. I’ll admit that I’ve gone into bookstores several times to check out books, write down titles, and go home to find the books online. But I have to add that I do still make a regular habit of buying books in print. I can’t help it. As a bibliophile, I act like a junkie in the presence of books, and when I’m jonesing for that book in front of me, I need my fix and I need it now. My apartment is proof of this impulsive behavior, where I’m running out of shelf space at an alarming rate. Anyway, I digress. Bookstores need to make money from more than print sales, and events are great ways to get publicity and make a profit at the same time.
But I’m also a student. I have a part-time job that doesn’t pay well, so I often can’t afford to pay $25-30 for a hardback book, and I’m a little unwilling to pay for something that was once free. Fortunately, my university has a reading series through the English department (www.liveoak.tcu.edu), which is free, but I’ve attended other readings to learn more about the author, get a sample of their work, hear how the writer intended the work to be read, or connect with others in my community who appreciate reading. Smaller bookstores can act as an integral part of a community, whether it be a small section of Manhattan or part of Boulder, Colorado. Either way, charging for events fractures with community feel and divides what might have been a closer community.
So here’s my call-to-action: even if you have an e-reader that you love and cherish, consider going out and buying a couple print books every now and then, buy gift cards, go sifting through the shelves of bookstores for gold that may not be available online. There’s something enticing about the smell of books, the feel of the paper underneath your fingertips, the rustle of pages, the look of an open book. We may live in a digital age, but I’m here to advocate for the continued consumption of the printed word. We need to keep print books and bookstores alive. As Ray Bradbury wrote in Fahrenheit 451, “Do you know why books such as this are so important? Because they have quality. And what does the word quality mean? To me it means texture. This book has pores.”