Should We Save Bookstores from the Internet?

Milk Chute Misfortune of Knowing Blog

I have fond childhood memories of running down the aisles of our local bookstore, pulling titles from the shelves, and begging my parents to buy several for me. I had an impressive collection of books in my old room, with everything from Where the Sidewalk Ends to Encyclopedia Britannica.

Just as Encyclopedia Britannica has stopped producing its content in print, opting instead to publish online editions, book sellers have also had to contend with the Internet. As it turns out, those that continued to focus too heavily on bricks and mortar stores have garnered the attention of bankruptcy lawyers, not customers.

I lament the loss of jobs in this tough economy, but otherwise, I don’t particularly care that large chain bookstores haven’t been able to survive the onslaught of online shopping.

Apparently, though, there are some (maybe many) who decry the closing of large corporations like Borders. For example, a few weeks ago, best-selling author James Patterson placed an advertisement in the New York Times Book Review and Publishers Weekly, asking the government to intervene to save our books, bookstores,** and libraries from the Internet. He asks, “If there are no bookstores, no libraries, no serious publishers with passionate, dedicated, idealistic editors, what will happen to our literature?” It sounds like an advertising ploy for his own books (considering that he’s unlikely to get reviews in the New York Times Book Review), but I’ll take his argument seriously.

First, let me say that I doubt our books are in trouble. People are reading more books thanks to the Internet, and maybe it’s not so bad that publishing is in a period of transition. Big publishing houses are equally capable of producing disposable entertainment as they are great works of literature. We might get better books if small presses that cater to particular audiences replace publishing houses, and then devote their resources towards finding and promoting great niche books instead of pushing the next bland bestseller.

Second, putting nostalgia aside, what’s so great about bookstores?** Once I graduated from picture books to contemporary fiction, I’ve almost never walked into a chain bookstore and thought, “This is a great selection of interesting books.” With limited space on the shelves, it’s usually nothing but the bestsellers and the handful of books the publishers are trying to make into bestsellers, the same stuff you can find anywhere.

I never discovered anything new or unique in a Borders. These days, I discover new and interesting books online. I purchase and read more books (mostly digital, but some traditional) now that I no longer have to travel to find a book and now that I’m not limited to the same bestseller stacked fifty high in a cardboard stand.

To be fair, Patterson does have one valid point: libraries are worth saving at government expense, though not because libraries will help “save literature,” but because libraries help people by building a sense of community, by tailoring selections to individual and local interests, and by making reading an experience everyone can afford.

So, yes, let’s fund our libraries, but please keep our tax dollars out of the corporate pockets of chain bookstores. If bookstores are unable to adapt to the changing marketplace, then they deserve to go the way of the milk man.  We’ve still got milk, despite the transition to a different delivery system, just like we’ll still have books.

Still Got Milk

*The image at the top is the milk chute at my house. The second image should be self-explanatory.

**In a salon.com interview about this ad (linked above), Patterson specifically mentioned Borders, suggesting that he cares that these large corporate chains are closing. He also mentions an independent bookstore in a positive light, and I agree with him there. Independent books, unlike the large corporate chains, provide a personal environment and often introduce readers to lesser known works.

29 thoughts on “Should We Save Bookstores from the Internet?

  1. Pingback: A White Space in the Book Market | pigeon weather productions

  2. I’ve enjoyed reading the comments here as much as your post – the joys of blogging eh?
    It’s a tough one, I’m no fan of chain stores either, but I do like to browse, to wander along and pick up books and have a quick read of them, something tactile about them. But your point about the internet opening up reading to huge groups of peoples has to be a positive.

    1. Yeah, the joys of blogging! I do like comments, including dissent, as long as it’s respectful. I can understand why people are so emotionally connected to bookstores–there is something special about them –but nostalgia and the tactile experience (that’s a nice way of putting it!) won’t keep the chains in business. Thanks for stopping by!

  3. I’ve never been a big fan of chain bookstores, but the last time I visited the U.S. I ended up visiting a Barnes & Noble, and I was shocked by the realization that there was NOTHING there I was willing to buy for the price they were charging. I love books, but I’m not sure the big chain model is the way to go. Which is not to say that Amazon is always the best option–I’m not sure how their low prices translate into author royalties–does it make a difference to the writer where we buy their book? But, with all the other options out there, I don’t think big chain bookstores are a lasting business model.

    1. I agree! The Barnes & Noble on my college campus was the only one with a selection that suited my tastes at the time (because the stands contained books by professors on interesting subjects and NOT Patterson’s latest novel). I haven’t had that experience in a chain bookstore since then, and it’s been ten years and I’ve visited a lot of large bookstores. As for royalties, I have no idea whether it makes a difference to the author. That’s a good question.

  4. On the subject of local book shops, I haven’t been able to convince myself of anything more than, “if it tickles your fancy to shop at your local bookstore, then by all means, go ahead. You can even feel superior for doing it if you don’t rub other people’s noses in your habits too much.” For all the things that we see on how much value a book shop brings, I would just like to add that I appreciate Amazon for dong something that no local bookstore can do for me: innovation. We had bookstores for hundreds of years but it took Amazon being in business for less than 10 years for us to have e-reading on the scale that we do today.

    I may just now have lost all my liberal street cred for saying that (to the extent that I had any).

    1. I like to support local businesses, so I’ll support an independent bookstore for that reason, but a large corporation like Borders? Eh. I also appreciate Amazon, and prefer buying books online to buying them at a bookstore, even if that means I lose my “liberal street cred,” too!

  5. I definitely don’t want my tax dollars propping up a business my voluntary dollars don’t support. That’s just fascist and nuts. I read more in the Kindle age than I did in the drivw-to-halfprice-books days. And let’s be frank: it’s cheaper, more convenient, and less environmentally damaging to download an ebook and charge your ereader thanto drive to a store to get wood pulp(or have it flown and trucked to you). The ebook market is wonderful. I love bookstores, too… But not as much.

    1. “I definitely don’t want my tax dollars propping up a business my voluntary dollars don’t support.” Well said! From the salon.com interview, it doesn’t seem like Patterson thought through his proposal (which was likely just a marketing ploy), but I thought it was still worth discussing.

  6. I agree; I don’t particularly care what happens to big bookstores. Besides, I don’t think it’s ever a good idea to base government policies on nostalgia.

    I do, however, think libraries play a major role in “saving literature”: they expand the pool of readers. When I was little, my parents — like many parents of small children — couldn’t afford to buy me a lot of books, but because they were willing to take me to the library every week, I developed a lifelong love of literature.

    I also think libraries are better than bookstores at promoting interesting books. The books that get turned face-out on library shelves are the ones librarians or patrons (i.e., other avid readers) like; the books that get turned face-out at Borders are usually the ones publishers have paid big bucks to promote.

    1. These are all good points. I agree that libraries expand the pool of readers and “save literature” in that way. I also agree that libraries are often better than bookstores at selecting and promoting more interesting books (depending on the budget, the librarians’ tastes, etc). My city has seen a huge number of libraries close, often in the poorest neighborhoods. It’s tragic.

  7. I’m with Kate, no tax dollars to bail out businesses. If bookstores want to survive, they’re going to have to figure out a different business model or service. We cling to hard to old ways when we should be stepping out of the way of progress. Innovation and entrepreneurship. Perhaps bookstores could become book havens. Maybe it’s the cushy, comfortable coffee shop, where you can read or write in a room you rent out by the hour or something. They could encourage writer’s groups to meet up there. Maybe they give you access to the internet, so you can pull up your media, be it books, movies, whatever. And perhaps they stock the physical book titles according to their clientelle’s interest. This is going to take them knowing more about their customers specifically and less about trying to create a McDonald’s “all the food always tastes the same” experience.

    It’s the whole adapt to survive thing. If they can create an experience or service people want, they’ll have customers. But the old model won’t do it.

    1. I completely agree! Bookstores have to sell more than books–they have to sell a personal experience, an opportunity to interact with other readers and writers, etc. My guess is that some bookstores will survive (hopefully independent ones), and that will be enough to satisfy customers’ nostalgia and whatever else they feel is lacking through the Internet. For me, though, I’m happy with online marketplaces and libraries (when I feel the urge to browse!).

  8. I agree that literature is not lost because of the internet. With just a click, it is on your screen. The availability is endless too. I also support the library for the reason you mentioned. It is community and social interaction. It is also a place for dialog about books read. It is a place for kid’s imagination.

    1. Yes, literature is so accessible now (to many of us)! I read more books now that I’m an e-book addict. I do enjoy browsing actual bookshelves on occasion, but my local library meets that need, not the bookstore.

  9. “I never discovered anything new or unique in a Borders.”

    Same is true with restaurants. I used to live in NYC. I would walk for hours around Manhattan in the early 1990s and would occasionally discover places to eat. Now I just sit for 5-6 hours a day in front of my computer and look at food photos from around the world. It is much better than actually getting outside, walking and eating.

    1. Do you really think that we should prop up bricks and mortar bookstores with public funds because it encourages people to get outside? Exercise and human interaction are important goals, but we can meet it in better ways (community events at a library, joining a sports team, etc). It’s not enough of a reason to perpetuate a dying business model.

    2. Seems to me you’re advocating in favor of government subsidies for parks, not retail bookstores. I totally agree. Where would you rather be: sitting in a Borders staring at a cardboard stand with 50 copies of James Patterson’s latest, or sitting on a park bench with your tablet considering dozens of potential books reviewed by real readers?

      1. I can see why James Patterson would be so worried about changes to the book world. He’s a product of the traditional publishing system and he probably relies on bookstores’ limited selection to sell his books (w/ fifty copies of his latest in a cardboard stand). From a consumer’s perspective, though, change is probably a good thing.

  10. While I can’t say that I especially miss Border’s, I would gravely miss independent bookstores if they went away. While I learn about many great books online, I have stopped purchasing books via the internet. I see supporting local bookstores as investing in my community, and I break into a cold sweat when I think about book monopolies like Amazon.

    I agree with you whole-heartedly about the need to support libraries. They bring reading to the masses. Our local library is well-loved in my community for its book groups, cultural programs, free workshops, and bringing people together with common interests.

    1. Monopolies are always dangerous. I also agree with you about the local importance of independent bookstores. I believe that there will be a certain percentage of the population that will want to browse and buy books the traditional way, and I hope that will be enough to keep independent bookstores in business. But it’s a tough market for them–they have to sell more than books. They have to sell a personal experience that ties people to their communities.

  11. I don’t know…it’s probably the nostalgia talking but I want to save the bookstores, even the big box ones. We didn’t have air conditioning growing up, and I can remember many hot summer days when our family would take a trip to the nearby Borders. While I also buy most of my books online or at small independent/used bookstores these days, I still think those big box stores have their purpose. And it’s not just their fantastic air conditioning. 😉

    1. I can understand that. I do miss the Borders in Center City, but for its bathroom and card selection, not for its books. It’s hard to say bricks and mortar bookstores have no purpose anymore (or at least not a compelling enough purpose to justify propping them up)–it feels wrong–but it’s a good indication that they’re no longer necessary when it’s hard to articulate why they are important. Nostalgia and a sense of community are important, but if it were enough, then more bookstores would be in business.

      Besides, I do think there will always be a handful of bookstores (hopefully, the independent ones) because a certain percentage of the population will want traditional books that they can browse and buy on the spot. There just won’t be a bookstore like Borders or Barnes and Noble in every town anymore, and I think that’s okay.

  12. I love bookstores for all of the reasons Theo Fenraven mentioned there, but I agree. They have to adapt, and I really hope they will, but tax dollars shouldn’t be used to bail out big corporations, and literature would do just fine without them (even if I would miss that moment when I walk into Chapters and go OMG BOOOOOOKS!!!)

    Libraries, though, are worth saving. They’re not just free sources of reading material, they’re community resource centres. And I’ve discovered more gems (ie new-to-me and interesting books) in libraries than I have in big chain bookstores.

    1. I agree! It’s an old business model, and we shouldn’t spend public money to perpetuate a dying business for little more than nostalgia. Encouraging literacy and a sense of community are important goals, but we can meet those goals by promoting libraries and by exploring other avenues. Propping up a dying corporation isn’t the answer.

  13. I miss the romance of bookstores. You know, seeing shelves and shelves of books through a large storefront window. Stopping to gaze inside with longing while you wonder, “Do I have time?” It’s especially appealing at night to stand on the sidewalk, looking in at the brightly lit space while you shiver in the cold. You spot someone cute with his head in a book and wonder what he’s reading. Maybe the smell of coffee drifts through the door as someone exits.

    Once inside, you breath deeply: this is what knowledge smells like. This is what fun and humor and adventure and history and fantasy and science fiction smell like.

    And then, even as you realize you will indeed be late and no longer care, you dive into the shelves and start looking. Touching. Turning pages. Smiling. A couple hours later, you walk out with a bag of books.

    Oh, yes. I miss the romance of bookstores. For all other things, online works better. 🙂

    1. There is something romantic about bookstores, but maybe you could find a similar experience in a library (the “shelves and shelves of books,” the “smell of knowledge,” the cute guy “with his head in a book,” etc). If these aspects were enough, then more bookstores would stay open. I do think that a handful will–and should–stay open. There will always be a certain percentage of the population that wants traditional books, discovered the traditional way.

    2. Have you read George Orwell’s essay, Bookshop Memories? It made me think that a real bookstore is hardly ever going to be as romantic as our notion of a bookstore. Oh, and I’m an absolute snob; I think I’m terribly allergic to local book shops that seem to have no organizational scheme, no inventory control, and faint, weird smells.

I appreciate your comments (respectful dissent is welcome)!

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