The Thinking 

The Demise of the Bookstore

February 17, 2011


HERE is an excellent piece by Albert Mohler reflecting on the future of bookstores. With the news that the Borders chain has filed for bankruptcy, the bookstore appears more threatened than ever as a cultural institution. Mohler explains why the bookstore can never be replaced by online retailers.

He writes:

The general wisdom seems to be that the bookstore will go the way of the record store and the video rental outlet. The bookstore may have been an important cultural asset in years past, many argue, but it has little place in a world of e-readers, online sales, and mega retailers like WalMart that deep-discount bestsellers.

Some go further and suggest that the demise of the bookstore is a signal of the demise of the book itself, at least as a printed product with pages between covers. That dystopian prophecy is almost surely overblown, but the book’s survival in printed form does depend, to a considerable extent, upon the survival of bookstores.

The reason for this is simple. Printed books are physical objects that cry out to be handled even before they are read. The physicality of the book is important to the experience of the book itself. The arrangement and order of the words is supreme, but the appearance of the book and the feel of the book in the hand are also part of the reading experience.

Furthermore, the experience of handling the book is revealing in other important ways. The cover and front matter of books tell us something. We are informed by the “blurbs” on the cover and by the reputation of the publisher. We can open the book and thumb through its pages, checking the table of contents, the index, the preface, and the dedication.

Mark Coker, chief executive of Smashwords Inc., an e-book company, told the Journal that when the physical space on the shelves of bookstores disappears, “it’s gone forever.” He added: “If you remove books from our towns and villages and malls, there will be less opportunity for the serendipitous discovery of books. And that will make it tougher to sell books.”

The loss of the bookstore will mean more than lost opportunities to sell books, however. For the last two centuries and more, bookstores and bookstalls have been centers for the dissemination of culture and ideas. The merging of the bookstore and the coffee shop brought two complementary cultural spaces together. Books are about ideas, and bookstores offer a rare context for meeting other people interested in ideas.

Being in a bookstore helps me to think. I find that my mind makes connections between authors and books and ideas as I walk along the shelves and look at the tables. When I get a case of writer’s block, I head for a bookstore. The experience of walking among the books is curative.

I learn a great deal just by being in a good bookstore — and often even in a bad one. I have learned much by visiting a Maoist bookstore in Berkeley, Jewish bookstores in Brooklyn, the old Communist Party bookstore in central London, Muslim bookstores in Berlin, and the eccentric book shops of the Left Bank in Paris. I know cities by their bookstores. To visit Oxford, England without a trip to Blackwell’s is unforgivable — as is a visit to Oxford, Mississippi without a visit to Square Books.

                           — Comments —

Nick writes:

The physical book will survive as a symbol of conspicuous leisure. I read an article in the New York Timesthat said it’s hard to show off intellectual curiosity (or superiority) using a e-book reader. If I’m reading an iPad, it could be a magazine, a newspaper, or a book. If I’m reading a physical book, you can tell if its a Danielle Steele novel, War & Peace, or something written Thomas Friedman. Depending on which of the three, you can draw pretty good conclusions about the reader.

Laura writes:

There are people who use books as status symbols, but judging from the books I see people reading in public, I would say most people have little interest in demonstrating intellectual superiority with their reading material. And iPads have their own cachet.

I think the book will survive as both a status symbol and as something beautiful and convenient.

Candace writes:

I love books. I was an only child and my father was in the military so we were always moving. I didn’t always have friends, but I always had my books. To me, the library was special, almost a holy place. There was so much knowledge there waiting to be discovered. I would spend a good hour just walking around looking at the books, taking them off their shelves, wondering is this the one I really want to take home today? 

I didn’t go to college until I was in my almost 40 and I majored in biology. It was difficult after all those years out of school, but I believe my love of reading helped me greatly. How else to get through all those text books about the physiology of the cell, invertebrate anatomy, systematics and the classification of iiving organisms? I was always a reader! 

After moving to the South, I married a Southerner and became very interested in Southern history and this is why I decided to write to you about this topic. I picked up a small book about Robert E. Lee written for children in a second-hand book store. One day I was curious to see if it was still published and looked it up on the the internet. It turns out it’s still around, but it’s been revised, or should I say “sanitized.” The website showed the first few pages and they didn’t match what I had. One could say this is a small thing and it’s only a children’s book, but what about books of greater import? If there are no printed books, who will be the keepers of our history?


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