With the recent news that the Borders book chain is going to soon be closing it gets one to thinking about the future of books and bookstores. It really is a scary, strange time for books, for authors, and for the fans of the physical reading medium. The thing right now is that e-books and the digital medium has such a spell over us that a lot of people lose sight of what has existed and not really changed a whole lot since its inception, and that is the book. Sure, sure, it evolves, it always evolves, but in essence it is now what it has always been. E-Books and the digital medium are great, and we need to embrace this buuuuuut we need to do it in the right way. I guess I can see why the digital medium is gaining ground but we need to keep in mind that there may come a time when the ‘cloud’ and our personal backups fail us. There may come a time when we lose all our photos, movies, music, all of it can disappear if there’s a system failure. And sure, a book can fall apart, a CD, DVD, or Blu-Ray can break but it is a lot heartier and a lot more substantial than something that you cannot see and touch. The thing is this, the digital and physical can co-exist, there just has to be a meeting in the middle.
And the meeting in the middle is where we, and the book store come in (I am leaving music stores out but honestly, you can swap music store for book store and music stores are in worse straits right now but that’s a different story). The best thing about the digital media, in music AND in books is that it can resurrect the dead. All of the old books, the old music, all the forgotten things can get life again as free and inexpensive downloads. A new generation can discover the roots of today’s stories and music. So much has been left behind and never reprinted or pressed to CD it is frightening. Sure, it’s fun having newer stuff digital but the old stuff is where we need to focus. The stuff we are losing. In our rush to make bookstores everything the library wasn’t we took the emphasis away from the books and so the books became the last thing people worried about. They came for the coffee, the magazines, the movies, the music, the poetry readings, and the hang out spot and the books, well, they were just books.
I love books. I love bookstores. I love the chance to discover the world there. As much as I love them though I admit I don’t buy a lot of books. A big part is price, books have become too pricey. And another part is time, I don’t have time to read a lot. Wait, I don’t TAKE time to read a lot. There is a connection to books, the art, the physicality, the layout, the ART of what a book is, that we cannot duplicate. Just as we cannot duplicate it with music. We try but we cannot do it. It is more than the object itself, story or music, that makes the thing magical, it’s the full package. Bookstores lost that connection. They, like music stores, were the refuges for those of us that are in love with the art of books. They were the churches of the book. Libraries are the museum of books, but the church was the bookstore. That was where you went to get the new book, to get a cheap paperback, to thumb through the weird things you found but would never buy. Bookstores needed to mature, needed to stay current but when they started obsessing over bringing music in, and movies, and gift items, and these elaborate coffee shops it just pulled the attention from the books. The big box stores are doing the same thing. They were once the place to buy movies, and music, and the general big electronics but then they moved to books and mags and the rest. UGH. Sure, sure, the online outlets took a HUGE bite out of bookstores, a huge bite, but there was still a way to fight back. They needed to embrace their region. The local books, the local music, and needed to use that to bring people in, and to beat the stores by having things in stock. Maybe they needed to become a local hangout, a local coffee shop but to me the further you get away from what you do best the bigger risks you are taking.
And are bookstores and traditional books dead?
No. Not at all. I think the thing with books is they need to stop producing so much stuff, honestly. As much as I hate to think that it is true. Publishers need to stop riding every hot trend. We need to make less books in general. Stop producing a million copies of supposed best sellers. Cripes. Embrace print on demand. Set up kiosks that allow a person to order a book on site and have it printed as they wait. Do it for classic books and at an inexpensive prices. Bookstores need to localize themselves and seek out the local and regional authors. They need to build the future. You can’t get Stephen
King but you can get the next Stephen King. Or whomever. Again, same with record stores. If you cannot directly compete with say, Amazon then don’t, but beat them where you can, which is locally and regionally.
There is no magic bullet for either place, for either venue, but because things are changing doesn’t mean that these places need to die. They just need to re-focus and renew the faith people had. They don’t need to be huge stores, they need to be intimate, knowledgeable (What happened to the employees knowing books?), and they need to focus back on the books and the rest of if can go hang. And maybe we authors can help with all this. We can fight back against the mass market cash in books that are all about the fad by connecting to our local bookstores and supporting and promoting them. Maybe the future is there.
Wherever it is though there is a future. I just hope it’s not one without the magic of the physical book.