Books at Retail

SEEM TO BE TAKING quite a hit lately, with many observers predicting the end of the printed book. Me: I’m not so sure. In his book Let’s Get Digital, David Gaughran describes pretty well why I doubt the demise of the printed page is at hand.

When people say-as a lot of my friends do-that they have no interest in e-books and can’t imagine ever using an e-reader, I get it.
People have an emotional attachment to print books. You see them wandering the aisles of bookstores, stroking books’ spines as if they were long lost lovers. Some take a book from the shelf, open it carefully, close their eyes, and inhale. They trace their fingers beneath words. They caress pages.

Books are beautiful things. I have a strong attachment to them myself. I don’t want a future without bookstores and where printed books are a rarity. Unfortunately, I have very little say in what the future is actually going to be like.

But a lot of people point to current trends in bookselling, with the most prominent example being Borders’ announcement yesterday that it was going into liquidation. (Aside: What’s happening to all those lovely books they must have in inventory? Acquisitive bibliophiles want to know.) I am, however, forced to remind everyone that the snapshot of circumstance you see today represents only one data point, and you cannot predict the entire trend from it. Nor can you be sure that even a trend you can discern will continue. Events have a mind of their own, and you can rest assured that they will conspire to make fools of us all.

I am minded that, in the days before the birth of Waldenbooks — the first national chain I remember, back in the ’60s — most booksellers were in musty, old, shotgun tenements in out-of-the-way corners of city neighborhoods, or were corner locations in strip malls, where they sold a lot more greeting cards and holiday ornaments than they did books. I found most of my books in — get this — local grocery stores. Yes, the very place now threatening to super-homogenize the entire publishing market and kill the printed book. And they were stocked by rack jobbers much in the manner they are today, with slow-sellers mercilessly culled, and only the best sellers restocked.

Well, but back then, when science fiction and fantasy were thought to be locked into a ghetto, the two most popular books on college campi were The Lord of the Rings and Stranger in a Strange Land, with Dune running a solid third. Those racks were a dry wasteland for me, mostly filled with Michener and Hailey and Jacqueline Susanne blockbusters.

And very shortly thereafter, the publishing industry, books, and readership all went through a massive growth spurt that mirrored the aging into maturity of the Baby Boom. All the big-box stores blossomed and spread across the land like fields of golden daffodils. (Hmm. A possible them for a poem, there.)

I see no reason why that experience cannot find a parallel in present times. Our current Obama-caused malaise cannot last forever. (Can it?) And when, like an attack of the farts in the night, this too passes, the economy will improve and people’s buying habits will change, and… Then what?

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