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The Bookstore at the End of the World

The Bookstore at the End of the World
July 20, 2011

The walk from my front door to Inside Higher Ed’s grand new offices takes about 10 minutes – or 15, if I am following the route that runs past a couple of unmarked graves. So I’ve come to think of the plots of commercial real estate where good bookstores used to be. One was a locally owned shop. It went out of business after years of competition from a behemoth national chain that opened its doors a few blocks away. The other, of course, was the behemoth national chain bookstore itself, which left a vast, empty cavern when its holdings were sold off not long ago.

On the way home, I sometimes visit an international newspaper and magazine shop that regularly becomes frozen in time. Few, if any, new magazines will be put out for weeks at a stretch. Instead, the owner rearranges the stock, mixing in unsold copies of old issues, which makes browsing the shelves a somewhat melancholy experience. (Obama has always just been inaugurated.) A flood of fresh material sweeps through the place every once in a while -- including scholarly journals and titles so recondite that they can’t have much of a market – only to disappear again after a month or two.

The bookshops were weakened, over the years, by online vendors, and finished off with the economic downturn. And in a different way, so was the newsstand, which I have been visiting for 20 years: the non-periodical turnover of periodicals started in 2009. Nor is the end of these tendencies in sight. What little remains of the Borders chain (which has closed hundreds of stores over just the past few months) may begin liquidating as early as Friday.

The company’s owners “have no room to complain that Amazon ate their business,” writes one blogger, “when they destroyed the bookshops that belonged to serious book lovers and staffed their stores with bored college students who made out with their boyfriends in the storeroom (or maybe that was just me).”

But schadenfreude at corporate misfortune is, in this case, a bit shortsighted. The impact of “restructuring” the retail book and magazine trade (to use the blandest possible term for this wave of creative destruction) goes beyond the obvious immediate effects on consumer behavior. A revival of independent bookselling is the least likely outcome, at least in the short run. Rather, the shrinking number of outlets for hardbacks and paperbacks will create a greater incentive for publishers to emphasize e-books. (As if wiping out the expense of putting unsold copies in a warehouse were not enough.) The tendency is likely to be self-reinforcing: the easiest way to get an e-book is from an online vendor. Last summer, a prominent cyberpundit predicted that the printed book would be “dead” as a major cultural form within the next five years. This seems a little less preposterous all the time.

Meanwhile, the 6th Annual World eBook Fair is making 6.5 million digital volumes available to readers for free for one month. The fair ends on August 4.

Actually, most of the material can be downloaded for no charge the other 11 months of the year, as well. Almost two-thirds of it comes either from repositories for public-domain works (e.g. the Internet Archive and Project Gutenberg) or Wattpad, a.k.a. “the YouTube for e-books,” which describes itself as “a viral community where readers connect with authors, share stories they like with other readers and create viral fan bases for both established and brand new authors.” According to the figures available on the fair’s website, another 2.1 million titles come from the World Public Library, which normally has an annual subscription fee of $8.95 for individuals. (Educational institutions with up to 1,000 users can subscribe for just $2 a year.)

After spending a while looking into it, I’d say that none of these numbers mean all that much -- especially not the claim to be offering 6.5 million e-books. There is much duplication of content between the sources. Wattpad offers 17,000 texts from Project Gutenberg, for example. I got 17 results back from World Public Library following a search for work by the early 20th century American author and publisher E. Haldeman-Julius -- but seven of them were copies of the same book, which is also available from the Internet Archive (which offers four copies). The readability of the texts is also quite uneven. For example, World Public Library carries Joseph McCabe’s volume on George Bernard Shaw -- a title long out of print. One of the PDFs had blank pages where the original had not been scanned. The other was complete, but the text was faint.

Well, you can't beat the price, at least during the fair. A yearlong subscription to the World Public Library comes to just under 75 cents a month. It’s less like an investment than a wager: if there turns out to be some valuable but otherwise unavailable e-book in the collection, then the gamble will pay off. In any case, the fair continues for another couple of weeks. Take a look around and see if it seems worth the six bits.

“All of us who are digital immigrants have vivid memories of reading printed books in our childhood, youth, or early adulthood,” writes Tony Horava, an associate librarian at the University of Ottawa, in the June issue of Against the Grain. “We can recall the color, the cover design, and the typographical look of the pages, and any creases, folds, or imperfections in the pages; we can sometimes recall the smell and texture as well. Each book brought with it a unique experience that was intellectual, social, and emotional; the physicality of the artifact combined seamlessly with the richness of the world contained within the covers.” (Against the Grain is a magazine for publishers, librarians, and booksellers, with a particular focus on scholarly and reference books.)

Horava’s essay “eBooks and Memory: Down the Rabbit Hole?” is nothing if not ambivalent. While acknowledging that e-publishing is “being developed in a richer environment of functionality, portability, and integration than ever before,” he also worries it has “in some ways … led to a flattening of reading, an anonymizing of interaction with texts.”

The e-book “is far more than a digital version of a print book,” he writes; “it enables new associations of thought, new forms of learning and thinking, new forms of knowledge, and flexible ways to transmit scholarship.” Which sounds just grand, except for the novelty wearing thin: “In separating the intellectual content from the container of information, we have paved the way for standardization of experience and a narrowing relationship with the intellectual object.”

If Horava sounds self-contradictory, it is for good reason: his paradoxes reflect conflicting aspects of e-publishing and its effects on how we read. But his emphasis on how consuming print involves “both the physicality of the object and the world of people and ideas contained therein” seems to miss another dimension of the encounter. And that’s the place where reader and text first rendezvous – a bookshop or newsstand, often enough.

Simply having so many publications together within the same enclosed space generates a kind of surplus of information -- an excess that creates its own indirect effects on the reader. A volume glanced over one day may come to mind, years later, as worth giving another look. Accidents of shelving can teach you the meaning of synchronicity. The algorithms at Amazon are no match for an intelligent person behind the cash register.

A short video that just came out a few days ago evokes the mood of a remarkable bookshop where (to borrow Horava's expression again) “both the physicality of the object and the world of people and ideas contained therein” seem especially dense.

The venue in question, Brazenhead Books, might best be described as a literary “speakeasy” in New York City. It is not listed in the phonebook, nor are directions to it available online. You have to make an appointment to visit -- and that means you have to know somebody. A few months ago, I attended the meeting of a circle of writers, graduate students, literary agents, and uncategorizable bohemian cognoscenti that gathers at Brazenhead on Thursday nights. (My jacket still smells like an ashtray, though reportedly there is now a ban on smoking.)

The owner, Michael Seidenberg, keeps hours more typical of a Jack Kerouac character than a small businessman. It's easy to imagine buying something there at two in the morning. The books, which are all secondhand, are in excellent condition, well-organized, and reasonably priced. And the selection is crap-free. If you tried to sell him a Dan Brown novel or one of those Chicken Soup for the Soul things, Seidenberg would probably throw you out of the store and ban you.

Actually the curmudgeonliness doesn’t run very deep. “One thing I didn’t expect from selling books this way was how much I would enjoy all the people that come visit me,” he told me. “Very life-affirming.” If he thinks you are the right person for a given book and can’t afford it, something can probably be arranged. (On the other hand, he might decide he can’t part with it.)

The short film about Brazenhead by Andrew David Watson, who has taught as an adjunct in journalism at Temple University, captures something important: it’s less a store than a space. And what that space feels like is a bunker or a catacomb – a retreat from the blooming, buzzing, twittering confusion of the post-print world outside.Seidenberg makes clear that Brazenhead is not designed as a refuge for the impending collapse of civilization: "That wouldn't make sense," he jokes, "because it's already happened. I mean, what did you think the end of the world was going to look like?" At least I think he was joking.

 

 

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