Friday, February 18, 2011

Bookstores -
The Phoenix of Old Media

I was in Pittsburgh with Leslie from Sunday afternoon until Wednesday evening. We had several things to do regarding the wedding, which included applying for our marriage license. We did this on Valentine's Day - I took her out to dinner that evening, and then to an Irish Pub (she likes those) in the Regent Square section of Pittsburgh.

We got most of what we needed to get done taken care of, and discovered a couple more things that need to be addressed. We're not having a sumptuous affair by any means, but where we've decided to have it, who is or isn't coming, and what is and isn't happening are complicating things slightly. I'm confident that it will all work out as it should. Add to this the fact that Leslie started a new job on Thursday, and things begin to approach a critical mass of sorts. I move in a little over two weeks. Enough said - onward..

I got back to Grand Junction early Thursday morning to find that the reported bankruptcy of Borders Books had claimed the chain's Grand Junction store as a casualty. This is personal - I love bookstores, and helped to set up and open this place almost seven years ago. I worked there part-time and on weekends for about a year. They encouraged people to "adopt" a section of the store and work on it until it was fully stocked and merchandised properly - Art and Architecture was my section.

Borders' demise was reportedly hastened by the softening of the book market in general as a result of online sellers such as Amazon undercutting full retail prices. The chain also seemed to take a somewhat ham-handed approach to the burgeoning e-reader marketplace. I can't fault them, as I have taken the same approach - I want nothing to do with them.

I can understand and embrace technology with the same deliberate speed as the rest of the world, if necessary. I rarely find it to be so. This is much the same when it comes to books. The tactile satisfaction that comes from the handling of a trade-size paperback is amplified by the wealth of ideas contained within it.

Even though I read fewer books at a quantitative level, I own a lot of them. The ones I enjoy and refer to the most will travel with me. A good portion of them have already been passed along to the next generation, as I expect all of them will someday. "To my children, I bequeath my early 20th century set of Dickens" seems more important and heartfelt than "my Kindle and all of its digital contents". I also seriously doubt the ability of any iPad to effectively duplicate a large photo of a Frank Lloyd Wright masterpiece, resplendent on glossy, thick paper and bound in a large volume on a coffee table.

I felt some of that sentimentality in Emily Anderson's (paywalled) reporting on the local closing in the Sentinel. She interviewed several customers who seemed accustomed to browsing with a cup of coffee, enjoying the peacefulness and near solemnity of the place. The Grand Junction Borders, like many of their stores, is a well-designed, functional and comfortable space to be in. It will be missed.

In what seems to be an almost paradoxical turn of events in the Internet age, Ms. Anderson also deftly demonstrated the survival skills of independent and used booksellers in the Grand Valley. From those accounts, things like a focus on a niche subject, providing specialized or more personal customer service, and a quaint or otherwise special atmosphere have helped to cement the independent bookseller as a larger force in the industry than the sum of its' parts.

Many hours of my childhood were spent in the Penguin Bookshop in Sewickley, PA. The business has been in Sewickley since 1929. In 2007, both the business and the building that housed it were purchased, razed, and rebuilt into an impressive venue.

The owners have leveraged and embraced the power of the Internet, as well as tapped into the energy of a network of independent bookstores, to make their location uniquely positioned and collectively relevant. Just by surfing their website for this post, I found that a new volume of
previously unpublished short stories by the late Kurt Vonnegut has just been released. I think I will ask Leslie to reserve it for me at the library, for after I get settled there.

In Ray Bradbury's science fiction masterpiece Fahrenheit 451, human beings literally "become" the books that were banned as part of what Wikipedia describes as "a hedonistic anti-intellectual America that has completely abandoned self-control". The book ends with a seemingly paradoxical but appropriate premise, given the occupation of the main character - a society raising itself from the ashes in part from the realization of what it was, and of the past it gave up.

Books are hardly headed for the ash can - I have hope that our society will avoid the temporary pitfalls of the latest, greatest, most hyped-up "next new thing", and embrace what really matters - what in many cases can be found in a book. That includes "The Good Book", regardless of what you may read on the web.

Have a great weekend.


Jenny said...

I agree! Kindles & Book Nooks (or whatever they are) do not tempt me. Although I have been reading The Good Book on Bob's I-pod through at night before I fall asleep and as often as I have to scroll through the "pages" it would be more convenient to read it on a Kindle or I-pad. Then again it would probably be better to just turn on my light and read the paper version. You leave in 2 weeks, huh? Wow!

Nancy McCarroll - Arts, Crafts and Favorites said...

Congratulations, John!!