Thursday, August 22, 2013

Bookstores like dinosaurs

As we plunge head first into the technological age, our lives are transferred little by little to the digital realm. We adopt all kinds of new objects and and concepts that have an 'e' (from the ubiquitous emails to ezines, ebooks and ereaders) or 'i' (iPods, iPhones and iPads) in front. Some things develop, and other things become extinct. And there is no secret that bookstores belong to the latter category.

We can all join in mourning as these spaces of culture and magic disappear one after another. Many of us have fond memories of childhood or dreamscapes that belong in a bookstore. That will not be the case for the generations to come. Is it possible that in a few years young children will frown at the word 'bookstore' and wonder what it means, and if it's one of those words you are not supposed to repeat? No, because they will have heard of 'ebookstore'. They just wouldn't know that you can sit in it.

Jokes aside, it is hard not to be sad when you see independent bookstores closing one by one, like valiant soldiers fighting a war they know they cannot win. Before we start pointing fingers and placing blame ("Burn in hell, Amazon"), it would be interesting to examine more closely the situation at hand.

The life and death of bookstores is invariably linked to the debate of print vs. digital. However, the matter is a lot more complex than a simple association. As Joseph Esposito writes in An Industry Pining for Bookstores, it's a vicious circle: as readers do not have a place to buy books any more, they are driven online, where they get a chance to buy the digital version for a cheaper price. Once they get a taste of that (now they also own an ereader), it is hard for them to go back to print books, and thus publishers are the ones hurt next in the print ecosystem.

But to me the fate of bookstores seems to be linked to the sheer number of books we see published nowadays. When books were scarce, they were held in high regard, they were cared for, sometimes read over and over again, and passed from generations to generations. As I grew up, it was considered a mortal sin to write your notes on a book, bend its pages or treat it with anything but respect. My father would encourage me to wrap it in a newspaper as I was reading it, so that the cover was protected. It's hard to preserve this kind of behaviour when we are swamped in books, especially when they come with the added curse of dead trees and we know we cannot house more than a handful of books in our tiny apartments.

So will bookstores go the way of music stores and movie rental places? I would like to hope not, the way I hope the tactile quality of a book and the guilty pleasure of turning those pages one by one will keep the print alive. But it's clear that a change of the business model is called for. Maybe bookstores can look at how coffee shops have evolved, and become a place where people meet and talk about reading and writing books. Of course, they will not be the same dusty, mysterious places of wonder, but they would not go like the dinosaurs.

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