What Good Are Bookstores?
(Above: Venn diagram, ”shoppers” and “readers.” Mass-market book-selling on the left; future on the right; “current condition” is in the overlap.) This is a rough version of the talk I gave at the Henry Art Gallery, July 7, 2011, as part of the “Shelf Life” residency set up by Henry Art Gallery designer Jayme Yen for Publication Studio, July 5 - 10.
I love bookstores. I worked in one, I mean as an employee. I’ve also worked in dozens of booktores as a writer, relying on their walls of books to shelter me and help me think. When I was writing The Dissolution of Nicholas Dee, I used the University of Washington libraries for research; but the place that helped me actually write was Magus Books, just off Seattle’s University Way. It’s the right size. I don’t know who was doing the buying there, or what criteria they used, but the store’s predilections suited me — sheet music, weird historical and sociological stuff, lots of literature and poetry. I would wander and sit in the stacks and read and think, disappearing into the books. I wrote Nicholas Dee this way. Here’s a scene I wrote specifically about Magus:
“A clutch of little bells rang as I pushed the heavy door open. Warmth came mingling out into the cool evening air to greet me. I stepped inside and stood still for a moment, bathing in it, the sweet decaying smell, old musty books, the hard wooden shelves, an acrid smoky trace of cigars. From off my coat, the freshness of a December storm, the tiny flakes melting, their dampness evaporating into the shop’s still interior. There seemed to be no one else there. ‘Hello,’ I called, singing the word softly. ‘Hello?’ Nothing. No one. ‘Hello,’ I whispered once more. Sweet silence. It would be simple enough to just listen for the tram. I slipped my shoes off, setting them by the radiator, and made my way in to the books.
“I could trace, perhaps, the history of this pleasure. Find its contours and depth, the echoes and sympathies, the shifting repetitions of this moment for me: once, with my father, on a day when the winter cold lay thick in my woolen jacket, my small and tiny fingers held tight in his hard, smooth hand; and I, watching the motion of his long legs, the gabardine trousers moving softly with each step forward along the frozen walk (the empty blue winter sky), could imagine the warm, close air behind his working knees, the small hollow where the trousers hung loosely, holding the heat and odor of his strong legs; and he, looking down at me asking what it was I was thinking then, and would I like to stop for a moment, the small bells ringing as he pushed the heavy door open, the sweet smell of books mingling out into the cold air to greet me. The moment inside the door, the pause upon entering. I feel it closing behind me, its slow progress back, the slip of the latch, and the silent puff of air, the door fit neatly back in its frame.
“I had a little list in my pocket, a scribbled note. Titles I might never find. Boyish fantasies of the intellectual: Bruno, Causabon, Fludd. Older now, too big to be led around by my father. And the hours that passed, my list lost on the floor unnoticed. The drift of my attentions through the windowless interior rooms — the simple etchings of flowers, pistil and stamen enlarged, names of tropical birds, stones of the glacial plateau, the English manor house, methods of instruction in the time of Charlemagne, a chart I once saw and could never again find chronicling bridge disasters, the mint, its history and manufacture, disorders of the brain, furtively and for several hours, Welsh bundling (fearing that any practice with so intimate and blowsy a name must be obscene), maps, of course, islands and river deltas, a boat, once, that sailed over the Angel Falls, a woman’s death by fire, fleeing Paris and the plague, the comparative sweetness of regional waters, the tongue and teeth, a sensitivity to cold, its touch upon the heart, the impossibility of Maxwell’s demon, meaning and song, speech impediments. My legs asleep, the book upon my lap.
“Impossible to judge the time, all light of day lost among the twisting walls of books. My sudden fear that time had come unhinged, whole lives drifted past, my mind having fallen so far. I rose too quickly, older still, a terrible ache in my knees. Difficult to find my balance. The muscles of my legs were still unwinding. A pile of books stood beside me, an accusation. I rubbed the backs of my knees through the warm gabardine and sat down, thinking to select one or two titles with which to appease the owner.”
On the afternoon of my talk it occurred to me that reading this scene would be a great way to frame the question “what good are bookstores?” I was in Seattle, far from my own books, so I went to Magus to get a copy of Nicholas Dee. It wasn’t there! That’s a typical result in the sort of smaller used bookstore I prefer. And not a problem: Google Books has Nicholas Dee, so that evening I used the venue’s wireless and read the passage about bookstores off of Google. Thank goodness neither I nor my publisher, Grove, ever asked Google to restrict the views to “snippets.” Also typical: after finding that Magus didn’t have what I was looking for, I browsed for a while and found Spiro Kostoff’s excellent history of the architecture profession, The Architect. I’d heard about this book, but never seen it, until that day. I spent $10 on The Architect, put it in my bag with my laptop, and walked to the venue to give my talk. It truly is a golden era for books.
But what about bookstores? There’s some worry that the ability to produce books easily, either as eBooks or as print-on-demand (POD) individual copies, will mean that writers will begin to reach readers directly and the role of the bookstore will be compromised, if not completely erased. I believe the opposite — that digital technologies will make the role of the bookstore more clear and viable. But bookstores will never again be big megastores, nor will they offer deep discounts. Something else is emerging, a return to the commerce around books from back before the era of big stores.
Reading is still a solitary activity; writing is still, largely, solitary. But there is a third thing — a social life of literature — that has always been conducted in bookstores, in the commerce between readers and writers, and which is distinct from shopping. Today, as shopping perfects itself in the rapidly triggered and realized exchanges of the iPhone app or in the equally refined consumption machine of, say, the Virgin Megastore, the less efficient, meandering, interminable relationships of literature begin to stand out in stark contrast.
Never before have shoppers been so sophisticated and “on their game” as they are today. No skill has been more rigorously cultivated in more cultures, over the last century, than the skill of shopping. Gone are the inefficient days of the old dottering shop keeper. Gone the aggravating encounters with limited choices. Gone the days of waiting long minutes, if not whole hours, for the satisfaction of one’s precise desires. The smart shopper identifies his desire, puts down the money, and takes home the goods. Better, the satisfaction of this transaction is temporary, and so the shopper quickly returns, having exhausted the value of what he bought, and begins again. By contrast, literature points nowhere, least of all toward a satisfying end. Literature begins to engage and satisfy long before purchase, changes little when it is bought, and, rather than exhausting itself in the moment of purchase, in fact becomes more available, more promiscuous, after it’s been bought and begun changing hands willy nilly throughout the untracked, “non-shopping” matrix of friendships. Literature is indifferent to a sale. So how can bookstores survive if they lose the race for “smart shoppers” and their core role as host to the social life of literature rises to the fore?
What’s a bookstore? It is a store of books.
What’s a book? For our purposes, a book is any reproducible text. Let’s also allow eBooks. An eBook is reproducible. It can be used or not, bought and sold. It can be well-made or poorly-made, a thing that is “stored,” and bookstores should embrace that, rather than repudiating the digital.
What’s a store? A store is a supply or a stockpile, a place with stuff on hand. And, typically in this usage, the stuff is for sale. It was once just a stockpile. Then it was a stockpile in a room with a door and a sign above the door. You walked in and spoke to someone to discover what was available and on what terms, exactly.
In the 1870s, with the creation of the boulevard system in Paris, the first big department stores arose. Storefront windows appeared at the ends of the long vistas of the wide boulevards. Goods were displayed in full view, yet behind plate glass. The relationship of conversation with the shopkeeper was thereby superceded by a primary relationship of desire for the withheld object — the clothing on the mannequin, the books in attractive large piles. (Not coincidentally, this is also the time when kleptomania first appeared as a malady among ladies of the middle and upper classes. Emile Zola’s novel, The Ladies’ Paradise, provides a superb view onto this wholesale change in Parisian society.)
These are very different relationships — the person-to-person conversation leading to exchange, and the person-to-object desire leading to acquisition. Because books are objects and can be designed and produced as desireable commodities, “book stores” were easily seduced into this new set of relationships, putting primary focus on consumer desire for the object, and letting the person-to-person relationships recede and get out of the way of the sale. The end result is the big, discount store, the “big book,” and a primary focus on moving large numbers, not on the culture of reading or literature.
Some unusual challenges for “book-stores”
Literature is not shopping. It is the opposite. Shopping is the completion of a relationship, the satisfaction of a desire (and subsequent need to repeat, since desire never disappears); literature is the start of a relationship that is unpredictable and enduring. Books suck as a commodity — rather than expending themselves with use, they improve with use; older ones get better. And they’re easy to share; they’re use and desirability has a long, unpredictable flow. But books are objects, and so they slip too easily into the consumer relationships of commodity culture. This is a regrettable error. Books are actually the ground of relationships more enduring and valuable than“consumption.” They connect us, again and again; their value comes not in consumption but perpetuation, attentiveness, endurance.
Consumerism is hostile to literary culture, and that is why “smart shoppers” will always drive the best bookstores out of business. “Smart shoppers” have a primary relationship to the object: possessing the object at lowest cost and with least impediment or delay is their goal. Yet the relationships that form the core value of a book, or of the stores that house them, want to endure, to play out unpredictably and inexhaustibly.
While shoppers need to see/find/appehend objects and consume them, before moving on to consume more, newer objects, readers need to live inside books. They are as lonely as writers, unless there is a host, a location, and a strategy for enacting their shared life as a “public.” “Publication” is the milieu where readers meet and become this other, vital thing — a self-identified, self-recognizing public that can make a home and a future for a writer’s work. Publication is the social life of literature, something that bookstores have traditionally housed.
Bookstores and Publication:
Paradoxically, the emergence of digital technologies shifts publication toward a model (in many ways an older model) that favors the enduring role of bookstores in the economy and culture of literature. No longer competetive as shopping emporia, bookstores must again animate, host, and profit from the social life of literature, i.e., “publication.” As they did in the 18th and 19th centuries — when operators of printing presses typically opened the fronts of their shops to customers looking to buy books published there — bookstores can again thrive as the site of publication in every sense. Digital reproduction of texts allows even under-capitalized stores to now produce and circulate books onsite, one-at-a-time.
Writers and readers will flock to this third, interstitial thing — publication: the creation of a public — which is the ground on which they become connected and where they fully articulate their connections. Publication is a necessary process for the culture of literature, and it needs a host and a location. Neither writers nor readers should be the host. They are the invited guests. A physical location and a dedicated, talented team is needed to host, strategize, and enable publication. In the 21st century, that “location” should be digital, material, and social. Becoming the host and enabler of publication means cultivating these capacities equally (digital, material, and social) without prejudice. It means remembering that all of these things can either be done well or poorly. There is such a thing as a great eBook, and a crappy one, just as there are well-made books and poorly-made ones. The host and enabler of publication should first-of-all be invested in relationships, conversations, and not in the swift completion of a monetized transaction. That’s the paradox of publication. How do you monetize the social life of literature? Or should you monetize it at all?
Some practical suggestions:
Bookstores need to cultivate the material, digital, and social realms equally — all of them — always. Coordinate the three and make them blend. Any activity that is happening in one, should also happen in the others: reading, conversation, sales, free sharing, recommendations, hand-selling, book group meetings, etc. All of these should have digital forms as well as social/material ones. (Enable “digital shoplifting?”) The material, social, and digital environments should be coherently linked through simple, consistent design. Maintain a consistent “voice” in all three — don’t default to prepackaged styles that differ from the style of your shop and your culture/concerns (as one is inevitably encouraged to do in the world of free softwares). Make all these environments as pleasurable as possible: host dinners, rather than just readings; keep a pot of coffee on or provide hot water and tea; encourage people to loiter; get drunk at work (my personal favorite); let pleasure be your watchword rather than thrift or efficiency. Hire readers, not sales people. Maintain these same rich “non-shopper” relationships with your staff and others, throughout the culture of your shop.
Value one-to-one relationships above all else. Here’s where eBooks and POD production of books are essential. Here’s where hiring a friend or admired-chef to cook trumps catering. Here’s where putting the musician you admire in the program means so much more than defaulting to a “norm” of talk-only events. Don’t focus on the sale of the book, but on the quality of the conversation. Indulge yourself; enjoy it. Extend it! And be sure the conversation happens in as many ways as possible — person-to-person; on a blog; in a newsletter; on a broadsheet; over dinner…in any way that has meaning for you and is memorable. Whatever you do, do it well. The investment will bring returns. This approach has always suited the world of used books, where each book is (almost) unique and the site of a very narrow, special interest. With POD and digital reproduction of books, it can now also suit the world of new books.
Always focus on reading, not shopping. Never invite people to be “smart shoppers” by offering them discounts or occasional specials. Give them one consistent price. Value your labor and the labor of your workers and ask your customers to value it by paying for it. When you do charge, set a single “tout compris” price for the staging of events; include a copy of the book in the “tout compris” price.
Small or focused is beautiful, but big is still possilble. Powell’s Books, the nation’s largest independent store, famously puts individuals in charge of sections, so they function almost like specialty bookshops; one big store may in fact by one-hundred remarkable small stores all under one roof. Maybe a big store can be organized like a Farmer’s Market, with many individual purveyors gathered under one roof? Become big by organizing a kind of association of autonomous siblings, rather than a hierarchical pyramid of subservient employees.
There are many things a bookstore does, and some of them can be monetized. Where you do choose to monetize (the sale of a book, an eBook, a ticket to an event, enrollment in a class or a series) do it well. Consider using apps or any other one-click method of payment; accept all currencies and methods. Especially where the store brings high quality to the elements of the social life of literature (by hosting sit-down dinners, by bringing in bands or other non-writer talent for events, by selling drinks, etc.), money can change hands and profit the store as the host and enabler of this social life. In a good bookstore monetizing — the “shopping moment” — should be quick, clean, and clear. Be frank about money and be consistent. Always value what you sell highly.
But much of the essential capital for a store, and for the social life of literature, is not money; amd much of that non-money capital disappears when money is the only acceptable token of exchange. Consider giving preferred status, gratis, to core groups of loyal consituents. Swap free entry for labor; give favors where they are earned with non-money investments of passion or labor or networking or any of the other essential elements of a social scene. Money needs to move through this economy, but it will never move alone.