I Kill Bookstores

Scott Esposito has an interesting post pointing to a few ideas concerning that ever-present question, "What will happen to bookstores?" He quotes Karl Pohrt of the struggling Shaman Drum bookstore: "What is the next version of a bookstore?" It is, as Scott says, an essential question. No matter how nostalgic we may get about the good old days when indies ruled the earth and everybody read books instead of playing with their internet machines and rotting their brains, the world has changed, and bookstores will either adapt or die. (Much of the problem at Shaman Drum, it seems, lies with textbook sales, a somewhat different beast from trade books, and, I expect, far more doomed, partly because they are generally items of obligation, their sales not fueled by interest, curiosity, and passion. And because most textbooks tend to be priced like precious jewels, buyers will seek out ways to avoid paying those prices anywhere they can.)

From Scott's post, I also discovered the Vroman's Bookstore blog, which I hadn't known about before. A post there called "Let's Tell the World What to Read Next" offers some clues as to where bookstores can go from here -- building off an interview with Seth Godin, who talks about the future of music in a world where selling CDs is no longer going to bring in huge profits, the post applies to bookstores Godin's idea that merchants in an age of abundance can no longer be satisfied with helping to provide stuff to people, but rather, if they want to make a living, they will need to provide guidance and selection amidst the abundance. The best bookstores have always done this, and now they may have opportunities for reaching audiences that they never had before.

At the end of the post, Patrick of Vroman's criticizes the widespread use of Amazon.com links by blogs and websites. This got me thinking further about the whole issue of books and how people get them, and it reminded me of a few sentences recently posted on the Small Beer Press blog:
Amazon take[s] such a huge cut that having books there is almost a loss leader ad for our books in stores. (People still like to pick up and see what they’re buying—and our books are all printed on pretty pretty recycled paper.)
I can't pretend to have all the answers for how bookstores, or any other kind of stores, will survive. But I can look at my own practices as a frequent book buyer, library user, teacher, blogger, etc. -- reading and writing are the central elements of my life, for better or worse. And many of the things I do are the sorts of things that kill bookstores.

I don't think of bookstores as receptacles for my charity, and so when I shop at independent bookstores, it's not usually to try to help them stay in business (the one exception to this was the Oscar Wilde Bookstore when I was living near it. But I didn't buy enough.) When I was in the NY metro area, I tended to shop at independent bookstores when I bought new books -- St. Mark's, Shakespeare & Co, and McNally Robinson (now McNally Jackson) were my favorites. I shopped there because I would find things at those stores that I wouldn't have known about if I hadn't gone in. I use the internet to buy books I already know about; I use bookstores to make discoveries. The latter is much more fun -- browsing is an addiction -- and also leads to much more impulsive buying, which is bad for my wallet and good for the health of bookstores.

Now I live in rural New Hampshire, and the nearest independent bookstores that can provide me with much opportunity for discovery are at least an hour and a half's drive away. I don't much like driving, so I don't tend to go to them. If I get the urge to browse, I drive half an hour to the nearest Borders in Concord, which, as Borders stores go, is actually pretty good. I stopped in yesterday for a rest after 3 hours of driving around doing business stuff and ended up spending money I didn't intend to spend, because I discovered there that paperbacks of Steven Millhauser's Dangerous Laughter and Edmund White's Hotel de Dream had been released. So I picked them up. (I was also happy to see Jed Berry's first novel, The Manual of Detection was on display on the front table, but I already had that, thanks to Jed and the publisher. It's the novel I'm reading next.)

The nearest independent bookstores to me do not offer a particularly valuable experience for the kind of reader I am. One is primarily a textbook store in a college town, the other caters to tourists, and does well with that (the fiction section is generally tailored toward the kind of people who really like Jodi Picoult novels. This is smart business -- in a big tourist town, there are lots of readers who like Jodi Picoult and want to read other things that will give them a similar reading experience). It would, in many ways, be suicide for an independent bookstore in rural New Hampshire to cater to someone like me. Thus, I rely on Borders and the internet these days, but whenever I visit Manhattan, I always make a stop at St. Mark's and McNally Jackson, because they are places of joy and discovery, places I feel a certain loyalty to.

As for Amazon.com, that's a more complex problem. I use Amazon links not because I make a lot of money off them (at best $100 or so a year) but because I like the information they give. I have thought about switching to Powell's a few times, and may yet, but it's still not quite comprehensive enough, though they seem to get better by the month. Indiebound is useless to me because I don't care where you buy your books -- what I want is to be able to give you information about the book, let you look for other books like it, let you find used copies if you want, etc. I want a link to give you the most information and options with the fewest clicks. So far, Amazon does that best for me.

As for buying new books from Amazon ... I hardly ever do it. I am a publisher's nightmare: I buy used books and I use libraries. Partly, this is because I do get a number of books sent as review copies from publishers (fewer these days, since I've cut back on reviewing). Mostly, it's because I'm not independently wealthy and yet I want to read a lot. I buy small press books out of loyalty to certain presses -- each year at Readercon, I buy at least a few of the Small Beer books I don't already have, for instance -- but the big publishers only occasionally, such as yesterday. I'm glad not everyone is like me, because otherwise no books would be published at all, but so it goes.

So these days, yes, I kill bookstores. I buy used books, I use libraries, I link to Amazon from this blog. I'm not feeling too much more guilt than I felt when I stopped using the local video store and switched to Netflix. It increases my access to movies, and it adds to my happiness. I'm sorry the local video stores have all gone out of business, but they rarely had anything I wanted to see, anyway.

We now have the option of abundance, and the business models that survive will be the ones that give us the most satisfying, least confusing path into that abundance, and help us navigate when we're there. Places that provide discovery and joy, surprise and wonder. That's what bookstores were all about even in the days of scarcity, and I expect, with some creativity and adjustment, they can continue to be that still.

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