The Enduring Passion for Bookstores

Whither bookstores?

This year, Borders Books closed and shut down its approximately 400 stores. Some of that business has migrated elsewhere: to Barnes & Noble, to online retailers and to independent bookstores.

Recent reports have shown that this season, bookstores are reporting actually showing increased sales in the face of the e-book onslaught.

A controversial essay in the online journal Slate belittling the efficacy of independent bookstores has drawn widespread comment and criticism.

And the owner of a landmark Paris bookstore, haven to generations of writers and booklovers, has died at the age of 98.

For the moment the focus has shifted to brick-and-mortar retail rather than digital sales. Bookstores still mean something to readers and writers.

First, a New York Times story explored the surprising strength of physical books this holiday season. Expensive gift books – like a $75 edition of all of the paintings in the Louvre – are popular, and also available (Amazon can’t guarantee the item for Christmas).

Increased traffic, and sales, at bookstores is a good thing. But it may not last – even the storeowners realize that come Christmas when many people unwrap their new readers or iPads, consumers are more likely to download something online than stroll into a bookstore and spend money on a physical copy of a book. But the bookstores will take anything they can – even if it’s a temporary surge in sales.

Recently the writer Farhad Manjoo blasted booksellers, especially independent booksellers, for being inefficient and not really worth the time of an educated consumer. His essay on Slate has attracted more than 1,200 comments so far, with most remarks praising bookstores, even though bookstore employees lack the sophisticated algorithms of functions that tell consumers “if you like this then you’ll like that” or “what other customers recommend.” You get a more personal touch – helpfulness, snobbery, disdain, enthusiasm – at the bookstore that you don’t get online.

The essay was provocative, certainly, and had its points about bookstore markups, online bargains and such –one can indeed buy books more cheaply online. But bookstores, for all of their inefficiencies, do help to make neighborhoods more livable (if only the locals would shop in them rather than use them as browsing places before they click to buy something online). And while more readers may be migrating to the e-book, many readers and consumers like having an actual place nearby (even one they don’t always support). The fierceness of the debate may belie the reality – bookstore sales are in decline in general – but bookstores are not dead yet, even if the marketing of books is more of an online platform-building effort than ever before.

In France, at least, bookstores are doing well – even English-language ones such as Shakespeare & Company, named after the venerable store that first published James Joyce’s Ulysses and run by a booklover whose dedication to the written word extended to creating a place where writers could work and readers could linger.

The death of George Whitman, the American-born owner of the bookshop, does mark the end of an era, that of the bookstore owner as outsized personality, perhaps. Such a passing brings to mind the almost mythical importance that writers and readers assign to places associated with literature, with the literary life, with the romance and even the grandeur of writing, publishing, reading.

The romance of writing may be fading (though the writing of romance is still quite profitable) given the harsh vagaries of the publishing landscape, when publishers themselves don’t know what even the near future may bring.

Still, the debates over the importance of bookstores in a digital age, the importance given to bookstore owners who put a face to commerce, the passion for bookselling in general – these are good things.

They show how much reading still matters.

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2 Responses to “The Enduring Passion for Bookstores”

  1. Kirsten Nelson December 17, 2011 at 1:23 am #

    I love the ambience of bookstores. The crisp scent of freshly printed books mixed with espresso and the wealth of knowledge between thousands of covers … yet I buy most of my books online, and more of digital books than physical books these days. Does that make me a hypocrite? Or just a lover of nostalgia? 

    • Nine Andres December 19, 2011 at 7:27 pm #

      @facebook-1664212644:disqus :The latter and a voracious reader at that! I do miss hanging our on cozy bookstores and just crawl up with a good book too. I can’t seem to do that with my e-book reader without fear of 
      putting fingerprints and coffee stains on its screen. 

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