Tuesday, December 11, 2012

The Death Of The Bookstore

My wife goes in because of the magazines.  I go in because of her, because of the magazines.  My students go in because I am making them in an attempt to engage in the quickly-archaic act of hanging out in a bookstore.

The other people in the store are old.  We're old.  I tell my students that it will be fun, that it makes for a great date, that they can get coffee.

The massive center of the store is filled with the non-books, the electronic devices in their various incarnations, with all of the accessories and the carrybags that go with them.  I have such a device, but not the one this store sells, and I don't even use that device.  My students, who we all thought would abandon books in favor of these devices, didn't, but that didn't send them to the bookstore looking for more actual books.  I did.

There are plenty of staff in the store, manning the large information stations, but not the checkout areas.  We try to avoid them, but they call to us, seeking to find ways that they can help us to find what we're looking for, but like my students, we are looking for nothing.

My students must browse the stacks and find ten books they want to read.  Some of them will pretend, and do it online.  I don't have ten books that I want to read; the imminent death of the bookstore has made me shy away from them the way people try to avoid visiting the sick in the hospital.

All of America, it seems, is reading the same five or six books, Young Adult series and soft-core pornography and historical retellings by talk show hosts who continue to reveal their ignorance in nightly ways.  I have read none of those books, but I know enough of them to see their various permutations and spin-off scattered throughout the store.  There are entire aisles, entire areas of the sprawling stores that one wonders if anyone has been in all month.

Nothing is where it was the last time I was in the store.  Well, some of it is, but not the sections where I decide to look because it is Christmas and a functional book still makes a nice gift.  The novels have crept close to the coffee, the cookbooks have been banished over near the self-help.  In the music section, with its pristine offerings of books and movies, two saleswomen talk to each other to pass the time.

The Internet became the bookstore, and then the Internet bookstore became a much large everything store.  The real bookstore has become the library, there if we might need it, what we really want not there.  The library has become the resource center, there when we rarely need it.

A mother and her teenage daughter cut through the store as the straightest path to their car.  An older couple looks lost, and only looks older because we forget how old we are, both couples trying to capture an old habit.  No one is hanging out.

At the checkout, the young woman tries again to get me to buy the store card that my wife failed to buy when she bought her magazine.  When she sees I'm buying a cookbook, she tells me that anyone who buys a cookbook gets a half-price deal on a large boxed cookbook behind her.  I decline; she resigns herself.

Tomorrow, the store will open again, this time without me, without you, without my students.


rodle said...

So true. My students just completed research papers, and as far as I can tell only one of them went to the bookstore and bought a book that could serve as a resource. The rest made do with whatever was in the library or on my office shelf.

Billy said...

What I believe, and what I hope, is that impersonal "big box" stores cannot survive the Internet, because the Internet is no more impersonal and is a far bigger box. But as Ann Patchett's engaging piece in The Atlantic suggests, what the Internet cannot replace is the need for personal connection and human interaction. (Sure, it tries, but it doesn't succeed entirely.)

It's too early to go around celebrating Parnassus Books as some success story on which the future of bookstores can be modeled, but it's also too early to announce that bookstores are entirely doomed. Our notion of physical stores must adapt. I guess I'm holding out the optimism that we are seeing the pendulum swing back to the success of the local Mom & Pop concepts.

There's not enough profit margin for Blockbuster or Borders or Tower Records, but there's enough for those with a passion and without dollar signs in their eyes. There's enough profit margin for the audiophile who loves records and the book lover. (The movie-lover is probably screwed, though, since the entire notion of a movie rental store was derivative in the first place; movie theaters continue evolving and thriving, however.)

Susan said...

I see a different picture. I go to that bookstore almost every Sunday, and while drinking a very large cup of coffee and perusing a stack of books that I have collected, I also people watch. And I see people of all ages. Families with children, teenagers or college age students, and yes, old people like you and me. They're not passisng through; they're browsing and gasp...even reading! I don't know if they actually buy the book, but they are reading. That's not to say that I don't miss the independent book-seller like Barrett and Co. that used to be in North Chattanooga, but there are still people looking at books (and yes, magazines). But then I've been called Pollyanna before...

And I have a huge reading list if you need some ideas. I'm currently reading Capital by John Lanchester (British writer). It's very good. Just saying...

Bob said...

Susan, so you're saying Monday night is not the best time to evaluate the store? Probably right.