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.
*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.