Tuesday, 7. June 2016 20:50
OK, this is the post where I finally go over the edge and alienate everyone who has ever read this blog. What I’m going to talk about is a repudiation of much of my youth and a horrible attack on much of what I have held sacred. But as painful as it is to say these things, I have to “speak what [I] think now in hard words.” (Emerson)
Let’s start with my credentials. I’m a bookstore guy. I put myself through college working at Brentano’s Bookstore in South Coast Plaza. On my application to work there, I cited my love of bookstores in general with the plea, “I have ALWAYS wanted to work in this store!” During my interview, the woman who was to be my manager and friend for many years asked why I was willing to give up a well-paying job in a drug store for a much more modest paying job at a bookstore. Years later she would tell me that she remembered my plaintive cry, “Have you ever worked in a drug store?”
Working in a bookstore was the most remarkable professional, social, and personal experience of my (admittedly short to that point) life, and in many ways formed me beyond any other influence. I loved the job, loved the people, and loved the books. It was such a pleasure to spend full days sorting, stacking and stocking books, talking to people about what they had read and wanted to read (sometimes working hard to conceal an eye roll), and reading. Each of the employees had a “library card” to take out any book for personal reading (I never knew if this was a company policy or a generous violation by our manager…anyway, I’m sure that the statute of limitations has run out) so I could read any book and as many books as I wanted. If you purchased a novel from Brentano’s in the 80s (well, a good novel), it is likely that I read it first.
Long after I moved on from Brentano’s (and Brentano’s sadly closed its doors, harbinger of the rest of the industry) I still took refuge in bookstores. After Brentano’s closed, I would visit Rizzoli’s or Scribners (both gone now), spending hours looking at books and listening to music (this was before the bookstore-coffee shop became popular…I would have spent even more time if this were available). In recent years I’ve frequented the local Barnes and Noble semi-regularly, enjoying the feeling of being around books and other readers.
But somewhere in the last few years my relationship with printed text has changed. After finding the first few ebooks I read to be challenging to navigate, I started to fall into the flow of reading on my iPad. I loved having a book with me whenever I wanted, marking and annotating text without defacing the paper (and finding these easily), and going beyond the book looking up definitions and other references on the web. The last time I read a paper book I found it cumbersome and limited. I stopped buying books. In fact, when I would go to Barnes and Noble, it was only to find books to download. But I still loved being in the store, even if it was only a showcase for my real virtual store (oxymoronic, but accurate). It was a nostalgic visit to a house where I grew up but didn’t live in any more.
That is until last week, having a chunk of time between appointments, I stopped by a Barnes and Noble, seeking the familiar reassurance from the shelves. However, as I walked through the cases, glancing at titles and familiar authors, I saw something I hadn’t before, and it hit me like a trade paperback between the eyes.
Friends and fellow readers, I saw WASTE.
One of the dirty little secrets of all retail and particular to bookstores is that far less than half the books that are received are ever sold (and this number is inflated by best sellers). Look across a shelf of perhaps 30 novels in the fiction section maybe one will sell, maybe two (unless one is The Great Gatsby or To Kill a Mockingbird…thanks to schools, those always sell). The others will sit there for a time and then (unless they somehow achieve classic status) they will be returned to a publisher. For every box of 100 books received, a box of 60-80 is returned. Mass market paperbacks (the conventional small size) are not even returned. The cover is ripped off an returned and the book is discarded (I still have a sizable library of “strips” as we called them, retrieved from the trash bin…once again, I think the statute of limitations has run out).
The model is built on a twentieth (or pre-twentieth) century concept of retail, have everything someone might want so you have the one or two things that they do want. This concept of “disposable overhead” was a necessity for a completely physical marketplace but seems less and less practical in a digital world. My Barnes and Nobel may have several hundred thousand titles, but Amazon has over a million titles, and the ability to control production and limit waste can increase this number over time. There is no practical reason why every book every published shouldn’t be available for instant download (I know there are challenges of rights and legalities, but these are technical, not practical details). Far fewer physical books are shipped to where they are not wanted only to be shipped back and destroyed (and recycling of paper is not a zero sum game). More books are available to more people more readily.
However, as with most digital conversions, there is a cost that comes with these benefits. The loss of the bookstore will indeed be a loss of many cultural touchstones, only some of which can be replaced. The feeling of browsing, touching and looking may find replacement in the Amazon site, but it won’t be the same. The recommendations of a knowledgable bookseller may be replaced by Goodreads recommendations, but it loses the human touch. People can read in a Starbucks, but it won’t be the same as reading in a Starbucks in a bookstore.
I guess the question is whether reducing the waste and impracticality of the current bookstore is worth these trade offs. During my last visit (I’m not sure that it will truly be my last visit, but who knows?) for the first time, the scale tipped in the other direction.
As always, I welcome your comments.