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Literary object fetishists, also known as “book worms,” have their texts in a twist over the current state of the bookstore. Borders has closed, Barnes and Noble hangs in the balance, and Amazon has become the boogeyman in the closets of avid readers everywhere. E-readers are seen as legions of demons heralding the demise of books, destroying the pure endeavor of literature.
I really hate to tinkle in your Trix, guys, but bookstores aren’t the cathedrals of culture.
To back up a little: I was at Powell’s over the weekend, and it was awful. I pretty much hate going to Powell’s, but I end up there once every couple of months. I am constantly disappointed. If it’s not their wilted attempts at indie impulse buys, (Inflatable moose heads! A cheese grater shaped like a crocodile! Posters with mid-century book art!) it’s the throngs of suburbanites, the achingly hip dudes with their twisty moustaches thoughtfully thumbing through whatever achingly hip dudes read these days, the wispy pixie girls trying to catch the eyes of the achingly hip dudes, the constant fucking posturing. I have also rarely found a helpful salesperson in there, except maybe in the YA section. The guys in the mystery/horror/science fiction aisle always look at me with a weird mixture of fear and confusion, which I don’t understand because I look exactly like the type of woman you’d see in that aisle. Get with it guys, babes are allowed to like Star Trek now. Were you too busy flaming n00bs on 4chan to read the memo? Going to Borders, rest in pieces, or Barnes and Noble always proved to be a worse experience. Toward the end, Borders became more like the Twilight warehouse, and Barnes and Noble is about as inviting as a doctor’s office. Basically, I don’t get what I need from bookstores, unless I am downtown and have to kill some time waiting for a friend so I browse Powell’s.
Powell’s, though it bills itself as the largest independent book store in the world, has more in common with Barnes and Noble than it does with the weird musty book shop in your town. It is organized; it sells plenty of stationary and non-book items; it has a built-in café. It is also a “go-to” sort of spot, meaning it is the default, go-to bookstore when you know you need something. Your neighborhood bookshop is not that. And if your town has an equivalent to Powell’s, replace its name throughout this post. Powell’s is clearly fighting for its market share, if the DVDs of movie adaptations I have seen there in the past are any indication. Powell’s is not a non-profit.
You know what is a non-profit, though? Your library. And they are in far more danger than bookstores. Libraries are awesome. I spent most of my youth, particularly the summers, at the Summerlin Library in Las Vegas, Nevada, where I did their summer reading program, used my first computer, saw an exhibit of Elizabethan costuming, and performed in their performing arts center. Las Vegas has little to no advantages, but in the 1990s and early 2000s? Their library game was on point. Not to mention all the hours I spent in college at UNLV in their state-of-the-art Lied Library, which has 302,000 square feet of books on five floors.
What I wonder is why all these book-loving citizens are so hung up on bookstores. There is, I think, an interesting dynamic that happens in the concept of owning a book. We get to do with it as we will, underlining and notating and dog-earing. You must exercise restraint with library books. They are, after all, community property. You read it, and you give it back. You don’t get to own it, and by extension, you don’t get to own the contents.
This is why I don’t see much of a distinction between box bookstores and the rise of Amazon and the Kindle. Either way, someone is making money off of you and your reading habits. You’re no longer a brain that needs to be filled with beauty, thoughts, or ideas – you are a market, a demographic. It’s an exchange of one form of capitalism for another. Whether you are in your underpants surfing Amazon, or twisting your moustache at Powell’s, you are using your funds so you can take ownership of an object.
And what of these objects? Anyone who is both a reader and a traveler can tell you what a disaster it can be to bring books on vacation. They’re heavy, unwieldy, hard to pack. Easy to forget and leave in a hotel room. And yes, there is something special about the smell of old books, it is true. There is something transcendent about holding a first edition or a well-designed book in your hands. But for most of what we read? An e-reader would do, honestly.
Would a world of e-readers really be that terrible? I think it would be the opposite. Imagine a world where libraries could loan out e-readers, or could purchase e-books of out-of-print or hard to find books. This would bring a whole new world of books to a whole new audience. It is a democratizing thing to decrease the power of physical books and increase the availability.
Our culture will not die if bookstores become a thing of the past. It just might, however, if we don’t give libraries the attention and the much-needed technological advances they so rightly deserve.