After 12/7/2011, this blog will no longer be updated, although content will remain. Please visit my new blog at Hidden Latitudes.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

The death of a bookstore, the rise of reading

   It was saddening news: Borders was closing its final 259 bookstores, this on top of the 225 it shuttered earlier in the year. Not only will some communities be deprived of a good bookstore, but tens of thousands will be deprived of a job. No one, reader or non, can be glad at the news.
   I have always been an avid reader. I remember reading Hardy Boys books in my upstairs bedroom at our house on B Street in Lindale, Georgia. We moved from there after my second grade year, so I was reading juvenile fiction at the age of seven.
   I love the feel, the heft, even the smell of a book. My idea of a pleasant day at the beach is a large umbrella, a cold drink, and a book. I love to own them, look at them on the shelf, underline, notate, and bookmark. Most of all, I like to read them.
   Yet I am as much responsible for Borders' demise as anyone. I haven't been there in years (I always found the actual stores too sterile, too European, for my tastes). As of late I haven't visited Barnes and Noble much either, for reasons I shall mention below. I do visit two used bookstores on occasion; I enjoy the aroma of older books and the dizzying layouts of the crowded pine shelves, but I seldom leave with a handful of books.
   So why is an avid bibliophile so infrequently in a bookstore? I hope it is the reason many others choose: the amazing variety of books offered by online sellers, and the ability to actually read them in digital form.
   As someone who appreciates physical books as much as I, I didn't think I would enjoy at all the notion of reading a book on an electronic device. Most of the earlier ones were atrocious. And reading on a computer, even a laptop, seemed awkward.
   But that all changed with the Kindle (and the Nook). Finally, here was a digital device that mimicked the look (but not the smell!) of a book,  was easy to use, and compact and light like a book. It took me a while to become accustomed to it, but once there, it became my preferred mode of reading. I especially like the way one can highlight and share passages with ease, and simply click on a word to find its meaning (I now know the meanings of risible and moiety). And another fabulous feature is that, if I pause my reading on any device, I can rejoin it on my laptop, tablet or even my phone, right where I left off. This is the best thing for a doctor's waiting room.
   Amazon doesn't release Kindle sales numbers, but most industry watchers expect that the seller will eclipse the eight million mark on 2011. They did announce that Kindle edition books have overtaken paperback sales, at least in units. Barnes and Noble's Nook is said by some to be the sales leader in books sold, but not in Nook readers. In either case, readers can read titles on a variety of devices (I use three), so proprietary hardware is not mandatory. And there are several publishers (Google Books, among others) that don't even sell hardware, but provide readers for devices.
   Both ease of use and portability are things I appreciate. Yet another key benefit is the price, with digital editions usually selling for much less than their paper cousins. Add the fact that it's available instantly, and tax-free, and it seems a no-brainer. Evidently I am not alone, judging by sales. So I don't fear the industry of writing and reading--it's still there. But it's changing.
   Will I miss Borders? Sadly, no. Would I miss Barnes and Noble, or the neighborhood bookstore, like The Shop Around the Corner in You've Got Mail? Perhaps (like I miss Meg Ryan!). But at its most basic, stripped of the romanticism, a bookstore is where you go to find a book. If I can do that from my home, is that wrong?
   Some people lament the loss of jobs and a sense of community. I regret the former, but question the latter. I can think of no time in my memory that a group of friends and I decided to meet up at a bookstore and spend some time together. I guess it happens.
   What intrigues me most about the digital age of publishing is the opportunities it affords writers like me, unable to attract attention with even modest publishers, to publish a book. And although it is a cash cow for some right now, I would hope that someday college textbooks might also be delivered in this fashion, thus lessening a large expense for financially strapped students.
  I don't know what the future will look like for bookstores, or books either. Music survived the demise of the vinyl record, and indeed thrived. There are more recorded acts now than ever in history. And I will, as long as I can, always buy good old-fashioned analog books (some authors, like Pat Conroy and David McCollough, will always be on the shelf). Yet I do not think it unfair to anyone that I read with pixels instead of ink.
   Because I am a reader. I don't listen to books. I don't wait for the movie. I read books.
—Wayne S.


Anonymous said...

Well said, my friend, and (as the Brits like to say) "Spot On'. All I have to read on at the moment is my Epic smart phone. Sometime in the near future I plan on picking up a reader or a pad to read from.

Kip Light

Johnathan Justinn said...

Well, because I can't read your blog on my kindle, I had to look up "risible" and "moiety" the old fashioned way. On the internet. ;) Good post, couldn't agree more.

Anonymous said...

Well, to use Lewis's terminology, I'll have to be dragged into the digital reader world "kicking and screaming". But If you're a fan, I might consider it. It' not that I'm techno-phobic. I'm joined at the hip to my IPhone - literally. I think it's the paper thing. I'm a visual artist as well as a reader, and I LOVE paper. I've even been known to choose one book over another by the tooth of the page.

I won't miss the big chain book stores, but I hope my favorite independent one at the beach never dies. Sundog is my ideal bookstore. Well-worn, wide-planked hardwood floors. Bold hand-lettered signs defining genre. Really knowledgable readers helping customers. I know most of the employees whose names are on the "recommended by" shelf, know which ones share my reading preferences, and can always find one available to have an unhurried conversation about her latest literary pursuits. I'm such a fan that whenever I am there, I make it a point to go in and buy a few books that I can't really afford just to make sure they hang around. Browsers don't keep a retail storefront afloat!

So, I appreciate your encouragement to experiment in virtual bookland, but I will miss the REAL bookstores, and hope I will never entirely give up the bound and printed paper.

Donna Smith