Board games shouldn’t be succeeding… Dice and wood? Face to face play with live humans? In a world of X-Boxes and handheld gaming systems, paper games should be dead and buried—the first casualty of the digital shift. But when I walk into any half-decent gaming store on a Saturday I don’t just see the gamers inside browsing the games, they’re actually playing. And somewhere near the front of the storeI can always find a sign listing the events that are happening there every night of the week.
So when I hear that bookstores are doomed because books are going digital I sigh. Not because I disagree, but because it didn’t have to be this way.
While I like to read ebooks, no one can accuse me of not understanding the love of paper and ink. When other fourteen-year-olds were still trying to figure out whether their first grown-up job was going to be flipping burgers or or filing papers, I knew there was only one place I wanted to work: in a bookstore. After all, if I was going to become a best-selling science-fiction author, then I needed to be around best-selling volumes.
And when I talked my way into my first job at the (long gone) B. Dalton bookstore in the Garden State Plaza in Paramus New Jersey it was even more exciting that I could imagine. Not only was I surrounded by books, but I got to play with them as well: there were cardboard stand-ups that needed to be constructed, face-outs (where I got to pick which books were showing off their covers instead of their spines), and even the forbidden fruit of the strips; old paperbacks that were “returned” by having their covers torn off, leaving their exposed inner pages to be taken home and consumed by a young reader eager to devour every volume he could get his hands on.
But those old strips didn’t end up staying on my shelf for very long, because a book without a cover just felt broken and wrong—like a balloon without its skin; just a lot of some hot air. And over the years I’ve bought many of those titles over and over again, just so I can show them off on a shelf.
There’s no doubt that things have changed a lot since the 80s: first Amazon cut out the soul of the bookstore by destroying the retail stores on price, and then ebooks came along and stomped on their (barely) beating hearts But as shocking as it’s been to see the retail store being eaten away by its digital counterparts (both from within and without), it’s been even more disheartening to watch them give up. The modern bookstore seems to be doing everything they can to avoid becoming of becoming the champions of the books that they’re filled with.
I saw it in Borders, and the disease is spreading: the worst thing about modern bookstores is how defensive they seem about what they’re selling. Instead of celebrating their legacy and working hard to find new readers, the modern bookstore is like an aging actor who’s still thinks they can play a 20 year old. They’re either stuffing themselves full of modern gadgets (and looking pathetic in the bargain), or trying so hard to please with movie tie-ins and series titles packed in so tightly that you have no way to discover anything personal and new.
For bookstores to survive they’re going need to become places where people come together to celebrate the physicality of books and rediscover the power of reading.
After half a century of gorging on cheap, flimsy softcovers, glossy magazines full of short, ephemeral stories, and gadgets and gee-gaws that have no place anywhere near a volume of prose, it seems like the entire concept of the bookstore is on life-support. If they are going to survive, then they need to stop feeling like a place where print is going to die, and reinvent themselves as a place to celebrate of the wonders of print.
A well crafted book is an object of desire, weight, and worth, both within and without. Books take up space in your life, and the reason that people want to walk through a bookstore door is so that they can hold these objects in their hands, and then share them with others just by proudly holding up the cover while they’re reading, or pulling them down off the shelf to reveal the mysteries within.
Bookstores have always been at their best when they’ve been more than just places to browse, so why aren’t they a place to hang out, to read, and to discuss the joy of being a read? And why not shout a little while you’re at it? They’re not libraries, and they shouldn’t be. How about book clubs, and seminars with local authors? How about debates, and readings for the kids? Even some simple arts and crafts might get people in the door.
If hushed tones and awkward glances over a rack of overpriced DVDs could give way to genuine human interaction and lively debate, and I’m betting they’ll sell a lot more copies in the bargain.
Sadly though, I’m starting to think that it may already be too late to save the bookstore. After all, the ebook train is barreling down the track, and the chains have long given up doing anything but trying to outrun the locomotive fast as they can. It’s even more depressing when you realize that all they need to do to escape is simply jump off the tracks.
But as someone who only recently got his name up on those bookshelves and made his teenage dreams come true, I sure hope that they can figure it out in time. If bookstores can lose their shame and guilt and start building an audience maybe they’ll finally be willing to admit that sometimes it’s okay to judge a book by its cover. That’s something that readers have already know for a very long time.