Blogging for the British Telegraph, Basheera Khan does an admirable job of rousing the book-reader rabble in the provocatively titled, No more bookshops? Good riddance. I worked at Books Etc. briefly when I was a student in London, and can’t say I’ll miss them much. That said, the post raises some questions, even if it does seem to be primarily constructed to produce the sort of tirades seen in its comments section.
Are bookstores truly in jeopardy? Will they go the same way of the Virgin Megastore? A favorite of mine while in London, I was surprised on recent trips to San Francisco and Chicago to find the Virgin Megastore in each city boarded up. Reading through my journals from a couple decades back (yeah, that loooooooong ago) I get nostalgic about how much time I spent hunting down record stores, how excited I got when I found a new and super cool shop. It was an obsession during the year I spent in Europe in the late 80s, when every record on every shelf in every store became a coveted import. I spent a small fortune on 12-inch singles. (Anyone want the entire oeuvre from Howard Jones?) Today I don’t spend nearly as much money–or time–on music as I did then. Is it because I got old and boring and busy? Or is it because the way music is distributed changed? Probably a bit of both.
A lot of those records I bought weren’t so much about the music, but all that stuff that came packed with it, even just the cover art. CDs never had the same pull, even though some artists did get fancy with clear plastic covers, inserts, and strange printing on the CD itself which made it impossible to know what music was actually on the thing. Then came the download. The idea of buying music without being able to hear it first, based on a pretty cover, now seems bonkers. And with that switch, I pretty much stopped going to record stores, as it seems has everyone else… almost.
Also on my trips I noticed that independent record stores everywhere have hung on, and interestingly enough, seem to be growing their vinyl selections. Again I find myself trawling through their racks for vinyl, not CDs. Vinyl comes in two flavors now: vintage and cheap, or newly released and expensive. Could this be what is to come for bookstores? The bland tiny mall store may disappear (if it hasn’t already) and the mega chains may have to work hard to stay afloat, but could the independents–with both new, limited editions and vast selections of used books–end up the only bookstores in town? They’re the places we go not for just the books, but for knowledgeable staff, local readings, and a sense of community. Buying a physical book, unlike an ebook, is about a whole lot more than just the book itself. The only question is: how many of us are willing to pay a premium for the experience?