November 27th, 2009

books in a stack

The book shop around the corner

On this day after Thanksgiving, one of the things I am always thankful for is books. I love books. I love reading them and writing them. Maybe it's because as a writer, I always read my own stories first on my laptop screen, but I consider that folks who love physical books more than their content are missing the point. I'm talking about novels, now, not picture books or illustrated books or even any nonfiction book. If you don't lose all sense of time and place when you're reading a story, then either the author wasn't doing his or her job or it just wasn't the book for you.

Print books can be beautiful things— not just the cover designs, but the interiors. The way the text is presented on the page can help the author tell the story. But books accumulate. They seem to propagate on my bookshelves when the lights are out, because every time I look there are more of them. I have already gone to having the books be two-deep on the shelves, which means I can't even see the ones in the back row. It's no wonder I have become an ebook convert.

We are at the dawn of the digital book age, and in the long run, I think the change will be good (if painful at first) for authors, publishers, and readers. At the same time, I can look ahead and see that one casualty of the transition is bound to be the bookstore. The UK branch of Borders is already failing, and ebooks probably didn't have that much to do with it. It's a tough time to be a bookstore; Amazon was a threat long before the Kindle hit the market, as their recent deal with the Washington Post illustrates.

There's a charming old Jimmy Stewart movie called The Shop Around the Corner about two people who fall in love as pen pals and then discover they work in the same shop. When they remade it as You've Got Mail they updated the story (but did not improve it!) by making them online friends and turning the shop into a small neighborhood bookstore that was going under from pressure by big chain stores. That part of the remake was the truest thing about it; small bookstores are folding left and right.

What I'm wondering is, could ebooks help small bookstores by knocking out the chains? It takes a lot more volume to support a mega store than a neighborhood shop. It seems to me that bookstores' only hope is to provide what ebooks can't yet provide: atmosphere, including book club meetings and readings and signings by authors; specialized collections of books that don't translate well to ebooks (picture books, children's books, coffee table books); and a personal touch as far as service. These are all things small bookstores can do as well or better than chains.

Obviously, ebooks are in their infancy, but looking ahead to their adolescence and maturity, it will be interesting to see how they affect the industry. I doubt there will there ever be such a thing as a rare ebook that's sells for big bucks after sitting for decades in someeone's bathroom, but they might find a way for authors to sign ebooks.

And if books come to life for you, if you haven't already seen it, be sure to watch this wonderful video about a New Zealand book festival, named for "Going West" by Maurice Gee. The festivals' slogan is "Where Books Come Alive." Seems to me books can come alive regardless of format.

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