Just went to my local Borders bookstore this past weekend to check out the "last days sale" as the national chain prepares to close many of its local stores after it filed for bankruptcy. I am not trying to be dramatic, but while it was not necessarily eerie, it was a bit strange to walk through the giant store with most of its shelves empty while signs of deeply discounted prices along with "fixtures for sale" signs were draped everywhere in the massive store.
What does this signal to the entire book selling business? Will everything be internet recommended? What will happen to local books by local authors? Will we only read what a few deem as worthwhile via recommendations on the various tech devices and websites that we use?
Case in point, my daughter just finished the youth novel, Ninth Ward by Jewel Parker Rhodes and loved the work. We are trying to find something comparable to this book and the internet web store recommendations don’t really give us options that truly suit the fullness of this amazing piece of literature that focuses on the coming of age of the protagonist in the midst of Hurricane Katrina. When we went to a local chain bookstore, the clerk while very helpful and friendly really could not point us in the right the direction, and at the locally owned store, the lady that is magical at recommendations is not always at the store.
Perhaps this is only my dilemma. Maybe everyone else is content with their web store inspired recommendations. I admit they can be very helpful but they do not always give the best and most exhaustive lists.
There is something exciting with bookstores that online sources do not provide when it comes to book browsing. A free first chapter is great and all, along with speedy shipping, but there is something delightful about feeling the book and then viewing another book next to the first one, and then maybe discovering a work that you might not have even thought about before you walked into the store. To spend time with books out in front of you and compare the pages side-by-side is an adventure in and of itself, and I wonder how this change to the variety of a real bookstores will impact young readers, for example. Will the future of books only allow us to read the award-winning books and remove the opportunity to discover works on our own? In this future, you don’t get to have that imaginary conversation that the author deserved more praise and accolades for their work and then spend time convincing others that they MUST read this book. But maybe I am just overreacting….
What I find interesting is that a few years ago, the argument was that the giant superstore would destroy the local bookstore, but now it seems that the internet and tech devices will destroy the physical bookstore and replace it with a virtual, automated, efficient and quasi-personal reading experience. Maybe we don’t really want to discover a writer, maybe we want to be told what to read and perhaps have the film adaptation instead.
What are we not experiencing when we don't have an opportunity to see rows of creative minds as far and as vast as the eye can see on the shelves of a great bookstore along with staff recommendations and a sales associate providing assistance to us who shares our joy for the written word? Nostalgic maybe, but if there is some truth to this new reality then I can’t help but think that we will in turn become less independently minded than before. And what upholds democracy more than the mind that is willing to challenge even when those around you in your cultural space do not?
In the meantime, I will savor the moment when I walked into that independent bookstore with my daughter to purchase a gift for one her classmates on his birthday. We talked about books, the manager read with us, pulled books from high shelves, we laughed and read some lines from a few and took our time chatting while my daughter picked out the perfect wrapping to match the book we thought would inspire her friend to dream and imagine. Ahhhh.... just give me a moment.