Friday, February 12, 2010

Browsing the aisles

by Lauren

Some recent posts on the future of bookstores made me consider my attachment to strolling the aisles, even though I do plenty of book buying online these days. I try to wholeheartedly embrace the digital future and am not inherently afraid of large corporations (I hope Blogger-owner Google will flag that statement for future proof they should give me one of the plum jobs after they take over the world). But if Amazon puts Barnes & Noble out of business--that one will hit right where it hurts.

I'm a Barnes & Noble girl, having worked there for 3 1/2 years in college. Every day I witnessed firsthand that people at large corporate bookstores do care about, know about, and enjoy books. It's been years since I worked at the store on 8th St and 6th Ave, but my coworkers were nearly all readers who cared about what they did. There was a reason they worked there instead of the GAP and most that I'm in touch with 7 years later still work in book retail and are passionate about what they do.

I've also had the pleasure of working for an independent, Dubray Books on Shop Street in Galway, Ireland. Dubray is a small chain (though even a large chain in Ireland is only so big), owned by a family from Bray all the way over on the opposite coast from Galway. As a consequence, the Galway store is the only one not on the Dublin side of the country, a whole 3 hours away. My boss was the store manager, who ran the place with the dedication and pride of an owner. And he was as passionate about books as my managers at B&N had been. An American who'd learned the trade at Borders, he certainly significantly preferred essentially running his own shop, but there was no way he'd only learned to love storytelling once he had no corporate oversight.

It’s true that you’ll always have some duds--I did work with a woman at B&N who was totally unfazed when I showed her the three shelves of Hemingway books she'd told a customer we didn't have because she couldn't spell it and didn't know who he was--but I also worked with people who could find you any book in the children's section without a database or could recommend you a romance novel for your mother based on sketchily remembered details of the cover of the last one she read. I firmly believe that if you can't find a book lover in a bookstore, you must not be looking very hard.

Wherever the smart money might be in the debate on the future, I can’t help but be optimistic that bookstores are here to stay and desperately hope that if they do fall by the wayside, it won’t be in my lifetime. However, I’ve met people who work for Amazon and BN.com, and I can say with confidence that if we do end up solely in their hands, we’ll still be dealing with people who care about, know about, and enjoy books. My problem with Amazon and its online brethren displacing bookstores is not that they’re not passionate about books but that we don't meet them so they can share that with us. Some of the joy of sharing great books with strangers would disappear if brick and mortar stores disappear, and that does feel like a genuine loss to me. I can't guess at the future, but I do hope that the e-book and the bookstore can happily co-exist for a long time to come.

6 comments:

  1. I love libraries where you can give the librarian a vague description of a book cover and half the plot and they know right away what you mean. I'd make it a point to patronize any book shop that employed clerks with similar abilities.

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  2. I hope you're right. There is something about the looks, feel, and smell of a real book, made with real paper and real ink, that can't be duplicated on a Kindle.

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  3. Cozying up with a Kindle in the bathtub? Never.

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  4. Just this past year I was introduced to the work of my now-favorite author by an employee at B&N.

    I went into the store looking for the latest release from a different author and was steered in the direction of my new fave. Granted, said new fave was set to have a book signing there within the month, but this employee was able to point out the similarities and differences between the types of stories of both authors.

    I bought the first book in the series and when I was finished - and realized she hadn't BS'ed me in the least - I went back to the store and bought the next three books. I'm not sure I would have been likely to go looking for my new fave if I did all my shopping online.

    Sometimes we still need human interaction to keep us moving forward.

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  5. Well put. And Mary's right -- libraries hold the same joy for me. There's just something a little less magical about buying a book online, and I'm a lot less likely to impulse shop and go outside my comfort zone. Though there is something to say for the sheer glee when it arrives in the mail...

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  6. There's something about the bookstores that the online sellers just can't replace. Not just the people interaction, but something about seeing all those stories sitting on the shelf is something you just can't really get from online retailers. I hope we don't lose them either.

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