Do we really need bookstores?
With the growth of Internet retailers over the last fifteen years and the convenience of click-and-buy, you might legitimately question the place of a bookstore in our lives. Once Amazon hit the big time, more and more people I knew simply surfed the Internet, performed specific searches, bought books online, and waited for the mailman to deliver them. Easy as pie, ain’t it? A few Christmas seasons ago, I purchased nearly all my gifts online. It’s a brilliant way to get exactly what you want without the hassle of yuletide traffic.
Selection is another big plus for online retailers. You want that esoteric, one-off title by your favorite author, the one published before the author hit the bestseller lists? Go online. It’s there. There are dozens of sites that take you directly to where you can buy anything. No more scouring of used bookstores in fruitless searches for obscure tomes. Click and it shall be delivered unto you.
And then there are e-readers. I bought one this summer and was astounded at how easy it all is. Forget pining as you wait for the physical book to be delivered to your mailbox. Now, with a few finger touches, I can read a book within a minute. How cool is that? Plus, it syncs to my iPod Touch so I can read the same book on the go, each device remembering for the other one the last page read. For the pure access of a good story with minimal effort, this is a golden age.
Which brings me back to the question: do we need bookstores? What functions do bookstores perform for us?
One of the things missing in the online environment is the casual browse. With all the algorithms used by online retailers, you start to get browser pages keyed to your interests. While it’s nice to have an “if you bought this, you might like that” feature, you miss the happenstance glance at a book whose cover catches your eye. You miss the opportunity to pick it up, thumb through the pages, and make an impulse buy. Sure, you might end up hating the book, but you still bought it on a whim. Can’t replicate that with an e-reader.
Another aspect of a bookstore you can’t duplicate with electronics is the figure of a bookseller. I’m talking the actual person here. Earlier this summer, I purchased Jeremy Wade’s River Monsters book. It wasn’t where I expected it to be so I asked a bookseller. Turns out, as he walked me to the table where I found the book, he told me how much he like’s Wade’s television program. We chatted for a few minutes, two strangers linked by a common interest. Unless you’ve got 2001’s HAL at your house, a conversation with a computer isn’t in the cards.
Bookstores bring people together. How many times have you been in a bookstore and overheard a conversation about a book you’ve read and enjoyed? Now, how many times have you joined that conversation? I’ve actually had conversations with customers in which I have sold books for the store. Hey, where’s my commission? It’s like real live Facebook but you interact with other humans.
That bookseller I chatted with about River Monsters was in Barnes and Noble, one of the biggies. It was only a fluke that he and I shared a common interest. What about the personalized attention you can get from a seller in a niche bookstore like Houston’s Murder by the Book, Austin’s Book People, or Denver’s Tattered Cover? Whenever I walk into Murder by the Book, I’m recognized. Think about that: the folks at Murder by the Book know my name. They happily recommend the latest title or the new find because they know me. When the late David Thompson graced the store, he’d always greet me by name and give me a list of a half dozen titles he just finished, often putting said books in my hand. He’d remember what I had purchased the last time and suggest additions. Sure, this is a little like the targeted algorithms on Amazon, but with a much more personalized touch.
Author events are a special way to bring people together and, in the words of old-time evangelists, have a happening. I’m not sure how many extra sales an author event generates, but the goodwill is usually worth more than money. Events are a blast and you get to see the broad cross-sections of people who enjoy reading a common author. Murder by the Book typically has more author events in a calendar month than there are days. Their reputation as excellent hosts enable them to get creative. In July, they hosted Noir Night 2011, featuring Duane Swierczynski , Megan Abbott, and Sara Gran. Over the course of nearly sixty minutes, we got to see a fun, lively discussion about their books, writing styles, influences, and life on a book tour.
If a line between author and reader exists, events like Noir Night prove that the line is dotted. As excited as readers are to see their favorite authors in person, the authors are equally excited to meet their readers. Heck, even Duane snapped a photo of the audience for his memories or Twitter or both. You may like one particular characteristic of an author, but it’s neat to hear an audience member or, in this case, a fellow author, throw out a question on something you’ve never considered. The answers and discourse shed new light to a book or an author, and it’s something that only a bookstore can deliver.
So do we need bookstores in this golden age of the electronic book?
I think Duane’s tweeting “Absolutely.”