Former leading New Zealand publisher and bookseller, and widely experienced judge of both the Commonwealth Writers Prize and the Montana New Zealand Book Awards, talks about what he is currently reading, what impresses him and what doesn't, along with chat about the international English language book scene, and links to sites of interest to booklovers.
Saturday, October 15, 2011
Ode to the Bookstore
Oct 12, 2011 The Daily Beast
Sure, the chains may be closing and digital books might be more portable, but John Avlon sings the praises of the independent bookstore and says we need them to survive. Plus, a list of the greatest ones in America.
In September, the final Borders stores closed, adding to the funeral pyre of big-box stores content providers that went before them, like Tower Records or Virgin Megastores.
Some people believe it is only a matter of time until all bookstores go the way of the horse and buggy. But all is not lost—at least not yet.
After all, we vote with our wallets. And if you care about the unique character of your community, if you believe in rewarding the rugged independence of small businesses, then your local independent bookstore deserves your support, now more than ever. This is an admittedly counter-cultural effort—but that is part of its appeal and sense of purpose.
Bookstores are different than other stores—they reflect the soul of a community. They are a place for meeting, browsing and reflecting. You bump into friends and neighbors, and see a book on the shelf you might have never crossed paths with before. They offer time for contemplation and conversation. As the sign hanging outside the late Gotham Book Mart famously claimed: “Wise Men Fish Here.”
This can be true even at a big chain bookstore. The sadness of the locals I saw at the closing of a Borders in Falls Church, Virginia, was palpable. They felt abandoned, lost. The mammoth store had hosted book clubs and regular readings that punctuated the days in that bedroom community. Barnes & Noble will presumably soldier on and anchor some communities in a suburban sales landscape otherwise blandly dominated by clothes and furniture.
The rise of e-books is, of course, an existential challenge to booksellers of all sizes. And I’m not immune to its charms—I love the ease of carrying dozens of books on my iPad when I travel. But I also love the look and feel of a book-lined room. I like to feel the heft of a book when I take it off a shelf, see its title and spine lined up along others, signifying different stages of my life, with different opinions and experiences lying within. There is a satisfaction in that balance.
The digital world shrinks distance, allowing for instant gratification. It also is cold and does not exist in the physical world. There is something comforting about the well-intentioned chaos of a real bookstore, the warmth that comes with human dimensions. And when we lose a sense of that value we start to lose a sense of ourselves. Think of the effort to support independent bookstores as being akin to the slow food movement. It isn’t faster or more efficient. But it is better. It offers time to appreciate instead of just consume.
Great independent bookstores are draws and destinations in their own right. They help define their town to the outside world. Read the full Ode here.