Recently I received a bit of a surprise when I went to a local library that has long been one of my ambush zones for the acquisition of unsuspecting books. All those lovely 25 cent mass market paperbacks with the stickers on the spine, all those nicely broken-in trades, all those hardbacks with the covers mylared over and glued down, were gone. Vanished. Whisked away on an electron breeze to inhabit the alternate world of the internet.
That’s a world I’ve hunted in a lot; in fact, the internet may indeed be my own Happy Hunting Grounds, the place where all those impossible to find treasures I’d only ever heard about as a kid grew like ripe fruit within easy reach. Not only was it simple and cheap, but it’s a world where anything is possible.
Of course, it’s also online cheapskates like me that are killing book stores.
I’ve blogged about my library shock in full over at my site, and talked about how important library sales were to me as a kid. How owning books, having a collection, taught a different sort of relationship and fostered a deeper respect for the world of books, fiction, and education than did borrowing them. I truly do think having these books available for purchase furthered the library’s mission of instilling a respect for the written word in the populace — especially in us kids who could buy a handful of SF novels with our lunch money after school — but, I suppose, it may have also reinforced other less desirable traits in me.
We know what kills bookstores. It isn’t people not reading, and it certainly isn’t people not buying books. It’s book buyers buying their books somewhere other than the store. Fifteen years ago the story was the little independent book sellers getting gobbled up by the big chain behemoths like Barnes & Noble who offered more selection at lower prices. Now, those chain stores are being afflicted by the leviathan of online sales which provides even more selection for even less money, all delivered to your front door.
There are a few overlapping phenomena at work here. Buying a new book online helps an author but hurts a brick and mortar store — buying the same book used at a little hole-in-the-wall book store helps the store but hurts the author. I don’t really intend to talk much about authors in this piece as I’m focused on the physical act of browsing, and clearly the whole thing is much more complicated than my short form explanation (the author that is ‘hurt’ by a used book sale, might gain a life long fan that buys his work new from there on out).
I’m guilty of buying and selling books on ebay by the ton. Some of these are old, out of print books that can’t be found easily any other way — but some are copies of new books that just circulate the globe without the author ever seeing a dime. Ninety percent of what I’ve bought through ebay was something I specifically looked for, the rest were books that I found after browsing a seller’s collection. But browsing online and browsing in a store are different things.
Not to over-emphasize the aesthetics of the whole thing, but browsing a book store is like having a civilized meal in a restaurant while online browsing is like eating a big mac in your car stuck in five o’clock traffic. The first is a public and collaborative act, one in which all the senses are stimulated; the latter is private, distracted, and utilitarian. Both can achieve fullness, but only the first offers real enrichment.
Despite being an ebay used book dealing blackguard, I have never stopped frequenting bookstores. Yes, I still look for deals while I’m there (the B&N ‘reduced’ tables are nice), and I do prefer independent used book stores to the big chains, but I still fork out my dough for new stuff knowing full well I can get it for less online. I do it because I like to buy books and, more so, because I like the exploration and discovery of browsing.
In this age of e-books and online sales there is still nothing on the internet that can compare to walking into a room full of books, admiring and handling them as physical objects, and allowing your imagination to be swept away by the sensory deluge of the experience. It’s easy to forget this, to opt for convenience and cost when we’ve got so much else to worry about, but, for lovers of books, I think it is our duty to ourselves to indulge. And if we want our children to have this experience, it may be our duty to the future, too, to take the time to go buy that somewhat over-priced new hardback by a favorite (or new!) author and appreciate just how lucky we are that we have such an unprecedented abundance of choices.
BILL WARD is a genre writer, editor, and blogger wanted across the Outer Colonies for crimes against the written word. His fiction has appeared in numerous magazines and anthologies, as well as gaming supplements and websites. He is a Contributing Editor and reviewer for Black Gate Magazine, and 423rd in line for the throne of Lost Lemuria. Read more at BILL’s blog, DEEP DOWN GENRE HOUND.