I spent some time Friday reading an opinion piece titled “Bye-Bye Bookstores” written by Sven Birkerts in the August 6, 2010 Wall Street Journal . In the piece, Mr. Birkerts talks about his history with bookstores, chain and independent, and his sad feeling that physical brick & mortar bookstores are becoming a thing of the past. I would include a link to the article but such links to WSJ articles are only good for a few days.
What really had my interest, though, was the comments, which seem to be a reflection of the trend I’ve been seeing lately, a growing dismissal of the value of bookstores. More and more book consumers are buying into the idea that Amazon (and other online sellers to a lesser degree) have all the answers, whether it be regarding print books or ebooks. Some of the comments reveal a sneering attitude towards all booksellers in physical stores, to the extent that I want to ask these people why they hate us so much and actively wish for us to disappear. For the first time, I’m starting to feel that I’m paddling upstream against a raging current and I only have a teaspoon for a paddle.
One of the commenters states over and over again that online bookstores will become multi-user facilities and buyers will use avatars to communicate with each other, sharing opinions and suggestions as well as having discussions about the books they’ve read. As he says, we’ll be able to find these avatars searching the same shelves and he obviously feels this futuristic scenario is a great thing. He is not alone in his desire for a supposedly bigger and better bookbuying world.
When we had to close the Creatures ‘n Crooks storefront last September, it felt like we were burying a beloved family member but I have maintained a small physical operation for about two dozen very loyal customers with the hope that someday, maybe, the economy will recover and I can open a storefront again. The thing I miss the most about the store is the public aspect, the interplay and conversation and excitement that can come with face-to-face talk, mostly about books but really about anything. How can a couple of avatars online even approach the comfort and pleasure of real human contact? I just don’t get it and I never will. Does that make me a dinosaur? Perhaps.
Another thing that the online experience can’t offer is the excitement about reading that kids get from actually seeing books and trying them out and we need libraries and bookstores for that. Think about it. How is a child who’s too young to be roaming around online going to find new stories? As far as I can tell, in the commenter’s brave new world the parent or other interested adult would be picking out the child’s books. That’s all well and good but what happens to the child’s own discovery of new things to read? Will she be limited to the parent’s choices? What effect will that have on the child’s imagination?
There are a lot of things wrong with the whole book industry, a LOT of things, not least of which are the price and availability of books in storefronts. I do take issue with the whole availability thing, though, because of the number of people who are openly incensed when they can’t find a particular item in the local store. Do they really think any physical store could possibly carry every single book? Do they feel the same way when they can’t find their favorite brand of toothpaste in the grocery store? That kind of thinking leads to a world where we do ALL our shopping online and never have human contact, not to mention the loss of all those jobs and tax revenues that support the services we demand. That’s not a world I can look forward to with any joy.
Some of the changes that are or will be happening are good but I wonder–to use an old expression, are we throwing the baby out with the bath water?