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Thoughts on Bookstores January 26, 2010

Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Culture, Nina Rosenstand's Posts, Philosophy of Literature.
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At the start of the Spring 2010 semester I thought I’d celebrate our return to the Halls of Thinking with some thoughts on books and bookstores. Sunday I was out and about in a neighborhood close to home, but one I haven’t explored much. And there, in a strip mall, tucked in next to a deli and a pizza place, was a used bookstore. And I jumped for joy! An honest-to-goodness used bookstore!  Now why would that matter so much to me? In all likelihood (because I didn’t have time to explore it, but I will do so in the near future) all it offers is paperbacks of bestsellers, some gardening books, some books about weight loss, and raising children, and other types of books that people discard when they move on to something else. A Philosophy section is not very likely, unless it is lumped in with “Metaphysics,” meaning New Age stories of reincarnation and How to Get Everything You Want through Maniacal Positive Thinking. But what elated me was the mere thought of being able to go into a bookstore full of old books, and let serendipity take over—take books down from shelves, browse and become inspired, and end up going home with some brand new thought process tucked under your arm. Something I used to do at least once a week for my entire adult life, regardless of where I have lived, until the arrival of Amazon.com, AbeBooks and the other book search engines. And that is of course also why the used bookstores are disappearing. There used to be one used bookstore after another on San Diego’s Adams Ave. Now how many are there? Three? And I’m as much to blame as anyone else who goes online instead of patronizing the used bookstores. But it is horrendously sad, because when you “browse” for books online, you only go after what you already know. The Hermeneutic Circle has captured you. Yes, Amazon’s clever trick of pointing out what other people buy may expose you to books you hadn’t thought of, but it still isn’t the same as spending time in a place where all the possibilities are right there in front of you, in the stacks. It has to do with our 21st century time perception, and our sense of convenience—we want what we want fast, and as cheaply as possible, so we can go on to other things. Who among us these days takes time—perhaps hours—to browse a bookstore when the outcome may even be nil? We (some of us) have stopped considering browsing in used bookstores as something you do for its own sake, something enjoyable. But we are the ones who lose out, because we think we already know what we want and what we need.  We’ve deselected the element of the chance encounter through the assumption that we can manage and control what comes into our lives, and that of course goes for many situations other than browsing in bookstores…

But it can get worse. How about losing regular bookstores, with new books? A recent CNN report told us that there are now no more regular bookstores in the city of Laredo. And before you start thinking snidely about Laredo, Texas, cowboys, and so forth, just let me remind you that for one thing, reading books used to be a widespread, nonpartisan pastime, and for another, you can’t jump to cultural conclusions based on geographical assumptions. So Laredo has lost all its bookstores, and it seems that other cities will follow. The irony is that it wasn’t even because nobody was buying books in the last remaining mall bookstore—it was a thriving business, but the bookstore chain was looking to save money by closing outlets.

Barnes & Noble says it closed the Laredo store as part of an overall strategy to shut down the chain of mall-based bookstores. Even though the Laredo store was profitable, the overall chain was losing money, according to company officials.

Some in Laredo fear the lack of a book store will make the city look like an ignorant outpost on the Texas border.

“Assuming that we don’t read because we’re Mexican or we’re immigrant or we’re poor, that is not the case,” said Xochitl Mora, the city’s spokeswoman who spearheads the “Laredo Reads” initiative.

“Our challenge is to convince a corporate America bookstore and others they will find a literate, articulate, eloquent citizenry.”

The publishing industry is in the midst of a revolution. Threats from Internet sites, like Amazon.com, and electronic book devices, like the Kindle, have cut into profits of retail book giants. In addition, bookstores are facing increasing competition from mass merchandisers like Target and Wal-Mart.

About 50 to 60 small Barnes & Noble-owned bookstores have closed every year over the last 5 to 6 years, the company said. Rival Borders has also struggled financially amid the tough marketplace.

This tendency is bad news for the efforts to reverse the dropping literacy rate among young people, and that’s alarming in itself. But this leads to another concern: a change in attitude toward the very activity of reading—which I of course do for fun, and I assume that you do, too, but look at the homes featured in the endless series of home improvement shows on cable channels. Where are the bookshelves? Where are the home libraries? A young friend of a friend came to our house a while back, and looked at our bookshelves (which take up a wall), and asked, innocently, “Why do you have so many books?” As if that is even a good question, ever. But it provided for a great opportunity to have a conversation about books…

Are we really on the road to a future where owning and reading books is “quaint” and perhaps a little subversive, a little disturbing? Is Ray Bradbury going to be right?