Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Death of the Bookstore

As many of you know, for Christmas I went home to my parent's house in Lompoc and discovered, once again, what poor shape the economy is in. I think most of us who live in urban areas tend to forget that it is small towns (what Governor Palin once termed "real America," as opposed to the fake America the rest of us live in) that have been hit especially hard by the recent recession. Most notable in Lompoc's case, perhaps, is the recent discussion of expanding the town's Wal-Mart to a Super Wal-Mart while local businesses are closing their doors on a fairly regular basis.

Sadly, the town's best book store, Printed Matter (pictured left) closed this year, business having been extremely slow. The store featured a fairly extensive science fiction / fantasy section as well as what seemed to be a pretty large selection of comic books and graphic novels. This was the first bookstore I ever shopped at, and I spent many hours perusing it's Classic Books section when I was still a student at the local community college.

Unfortunately, while I was and continue to be a fan of independently-owned bookstores, most of Lompoc was not, and there were rarely any other patrons in the store when I went in. It is not surprising to me that the store closed. What is (mildly) surprising is what factors may have caused the recent decline in bookshops, which David Streitfield identifies in his New York Times article, "Bargain Hunting for Books and Feeling Sheepish About It." While I have often thought that large chains such as Borders and Barnes and Noble were responsible for the deaths of small bookstores, Streitfield points out that these stores, too, are on the rocks, while Amazon sales are not soaring, either.

Instead, Streitfield writes, "This is not about Amazon peddling new books at discounted prices, which has been a factor in the book business for a decade, but about the rise of a worldwide network of amateurs who sell books from their homes or, if they’re lazy like me, in partnership with an Internet dealer who does all the work for a chunk of the proceeds." It is through the increased availability of very cheap used books that Americans have stopped going to bookstores. Why drive all over town to look for a specific book that will cost me fifteen dollars, if I can just go online and buy the same book for a quarter and have it shipped to my house for a couple of bucks? Bookstores are neither time- nor cost-effiecient and are soon to go the way of the dodo.

I worked at an amazing bookstore in Santa Monica last year, Kulturas, which was owned by a couple who had just recently moved to the area from Washington D.C. Having been slightly unfamiliar with the area, they chose a location on Ocean Park Boulevard, about ten blocks from Main Street. It was in a lovely location in a very tidy neighborhood on a fairly busy street. The owners were very picky about their stock and had only books in the best of condition. They had a large philosophy section, a gorgeous poetry section, rare books, political science, foreign languages, etc. There were no fluffy romance novels, no science fiction / fantasy, very few mysteries, etc. The owners were well-read and well-spoken and I thoroughly enjoyed both their company and their store.

Unfortunately, there was little foot traffic on Ocean Park, so there were very few customers who stumbled across the store. The only people who came in on the days I worked (Saturdays) were students hoping to sell their books. Those few people who did just happen to stop by couldn't find anything to interest them in the well-stocked shelves, especially considering many of the books were incredibly specific and there was no catalogue of the store's contents. In addition, the books were priced at approximately $15 each. Are you surprised, then, that the students who were trying to sell their books there were not buying books, as well?

Unfortunately, most arguments that are used to try to motivate people to go to their bookstores in droves are ineffective at best: "Michael Barnard, who owns Rakestraw Books in Danville, Calif., not far from Berkeley, was more critical of me. He said that I was taking [the author's] work while depriving her of an income, and that I would regret my selfish actions when all the physical stores were gone." True, it's possible that the general public will miss bookstores when they're gone, but on the other hand, it's obvious that most people don't use bookstores any more, anyway, so why would any of them miss the bookstores when they're gone?

No matter how many times booksellers cry, "support your local community," in the end, the public would rather save money. As Streitfield points out, "How much do I want to pay, and where do I want that money to go? To my local community via a bookstore? To the publisher? To the author? In theory, I want to support all of these fine folks. In practice, I decide to save a buck." Sad, but true.

In my opinion, technology has changed the way we shop too much to allow the old ways to continue unfazed. Kulturas, in an effort to change with the times, had accounts on various websites and sold most of their rare books on-line rather than in-person. Clinging stubbornly to the way things were rather than facing how things are will only result in more closing bookstores.

No comments:

Related Posts with Thumbnails