Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, culture, and the writing life.

Are bookstores necessary?

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Earlier this week, Slate’s Farhad Majoo published an essay, in response to Richard Russo’s recent piece in the New York Times, on why it makes more sense for readers to buy books on Amazon.com, rather than local bookstores. Manjoo makes a lot of sound points—Amazon offers better prices and a much wider range of choices, meaning that you can buy two good books for the price of one at an ordinary bookshop—and I don’t intend to try and refute him here. (Plenty of others have done so already.) But as much as I love my Amazon Prime, his article still rubbed me the wrong way. Ultimately, I think I’m irritated by his assumption, which he presents without any particular scrutiny, that shopping in bookstores is an inherently irrational act, like voting or visiting an ashram, that people do just because it makes them feel good. It’s this paragraph, in particular, that annoyed me:

I get that some people like bookstores, and they’re willing to pay extra to shop there. They find browsing through physical books to be a meditative experience, and they enjoy some of the ancillary benefits of physicality (authors’ readings, unlimited magazine browsing, in-store coffee shops, the warm couches that you can curl into on a cold day). And that’s fine: In the same way that I sometimes wander into Whole Foods for the luxurious experience of buying fancy food, I don’t begrudge bookstore devotees spending extra to get an experience they fancy.

As someone who loves going to bookstores more than just about anything else in the world, I’m irked by this condescending tone, which implies that bookstore browsing is a quirk Manjoo is willing to tolerate in others—like being a LARPer, say—but secretly finds faintly absurd. As what Majoo might term a “bookstore cultist,” I can testify that browsing isn’t just something I “fancy”: it’s an essential part of being an intellectually curious person. For those of us who depend on new ideas for a living, there’s a definite utility to browsing among physical books, to the point where the failure to browse even puts us at a disadvantage. Speaking for myself, I’ve learned countless things while browsing that I never would have found in any other way: a small but crucial subplot in The Icon Thief, for instance, revolving around the Black Dahlia murder, was inspired by a random discovery in a half-price bookshop. Bookstores and libraries are simply the best places in the world to think and dream. And I can’t do that online.

Some of Majoo’s other points fail to hold water as well. “If you don’t choose your movies based on what the guy at the box office recommends,” Manjoo asks, “why would you choose your books that way?” This conveniently overlooks a couple of facts. First, the universe of books is far wider than those of movies in wide release, so a personal recommendation does carry some weight, as it once did at video stores. Second, and more importantly, we do choose our movies based on what theater owners recommend, albeit indirectly—the movies playing at my local art house theater are only a small subset of the independent or specialty titles out for release at any given time, and have been invisibly curated for us before we even set foot inside. This kind of curating, for better or worse, is also what good independent bookstores do. When I visit the Book Table in Oak Park, for instance, or the Book Cellar in Lincoln Square, I’m guaranteed to see something interesting—like the new edition of Pale Fire, say—that I never would have found on my own.

Of course, I’ve made even more serendipitous discoveries at used bookstores, or the Strand dollar bin, implying that the best curator of all is random chance—and in a form that has no economic advantage whatsoever for the authors involved. Even worse, when I see something interesting at a local bookstore, I tend to do exactly what foes of Amazon’s Price Check promotion have complained about: I’ll check the prices available elsewhere, usually on my phone, and ultimately buy it online or get it from the library. As a reader and browser, then, I’m a mercenary: I’ll browse in one place and buy in another, or buy a used copy that doesn’t benefit the author at all. Obviously, I have mixed feelings about this, and the occasional purchase of a new book at a local bookstore doesn’t do much to assuage my guilt. My only hope, as a writer and browser, is that there are enough irrational book lovers of the type Manjoo derides to keep these bookstores alive. Without them, an intangible but real part of our culture will be lost. It has nothing to do with economics. But it’s very rational indeed.

Written by nevalalee

December 16, 2011 at 10:37 am

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