The Booky Man: Requiem for the Book Store

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My favorite bookstore on earth, A Cappella Books here in Atlanta, celebrated its 20th year in business on December 1. I telephoned Frank Reiss, the owner, and sang happy birthday.

Frank asked a score of Atlanta writers to the store the next weekend to talk about their favorite books. I followed Hollis Gillespie, the spicy high-priestess of pluck and perseverance known for her irreverent memoirs (Bleachy-Haired Honky Bitch, Confessions of a Recovering Slut, Trailer Trashed). Attendance was good; Frank sold some books.

Meanwhile, Amazon’s e-reader, the Kindle, along with the new Barnes & Noble e-reader, Nook, and a few other such devices have sold between 3 and 5 million units in 2009, according to industry analysts.

This is news—maybe even good news—for writers. Three-million-plus e-readers will unquestionably download multi-millions of novels, broadening the exposure of authors and their works. Depending on a copyright decision or three, e-readers might even generate money for the poor stiffs who write the world’s stories.

Independent book stores like A Cappella must feel like Bambi at the moment Godzilla appears on the horizon. Even before the e-reader, it was getting harder to draw customers into bookstores. Now, millions and millions of novels fly through UPS planes via Amazon or through airwaves straight into e-readers (and soon enough into iPhones or tablets or whatever else the Nerd Class invents). Businesses that depend on live human beings who browse and buy titles look more and more prehistoric.

I’m not saying the sky is falling…at least not this second. Lots of those e-readers under the Christmas tree will not be heavily used; many owners will still choose to walk into a bookstore, unconvinced by the instant gratification of the download or the vast library of titles an e-reader can put into a coat pocket.

For others, the e-reader will simply be an appetizer. Sam Rainer, a voracious reader friend, explains, “When I come across a book I really like on my Kindle, I eventually buy a ‘hard’ copy to add to my library. For me, the Kindle is merely the foreplay. Buying a book is still the consummation.”

I’ll add personally that where and how you buy a book is consummation too. Bookstores have always mattered to me. I love visiting them, no matter the city or neighborhood. I love to see folks browse, check out the stacks, crack open something new and good…or old and good, for that matter. It’s a social thing for me, the way a sports bar makes a frat boy feel at home, or a botanical garden inspires an orchid enthusiast. I am nourished among titles and ink and the sorts of folks who show up to worship books in their shrines.

Still, our numbers shrink. Even big book chains are feeling the strain. Borders has been teetering on survival for some time, and brick-and-mortar Barnes & Noble obviously felt the need to offer an e-reader to compete with online Amazon. A different kind of writing is so clearly on the wall.

It’s the independent bookstores, like A Cappella, most at risk. If there were an endangered species list for American businesses, you could add the indy book store right next to the daily newspaper and the CD store.

Much feels at stake when the business is a vital organ in a community, like A Cappella (and many other book stores). Traffic to Frank’s store helps indirectly support Sevenanda, a nearby health-food cooperative; Charis, an alternative book store; Opal Gallery; Savage Pizza; a little community drug store, an optician, and a number of more off-beat destinations.

Traffic to these businesses helps A Cappella too. It’s symbiosis. But what happens when random organs of commerce in the community fail? A store here, a store there…soon you’ve got Flint, Michigan. Rows of Yorick’s skulls (alas) stare out where vibrant businesses used to be.

Against the odds, bookstores are fighting back. More and more, they’re using tricks from show biz to ring up sales—celebrity readings, events pairing musicians and readers, collections of writers, movies with book sales, chefs with shiny knives, etc. You can buy a fresh-brewed French roast. You can see art openings, and sip wine with seductive Beautiful People.

This kind of evolution might work.

Or evolution might simply be a word, in this case, for e-readers.

Maybe it’s inevitable that Americans sucked more and more into seclusion by so many factors—air conditioning, the Internet, dangerous neighborhoods, Dancing With The Stars, obesity, ageing, other excuses—will simply reach for a mouse instead of leaving a house.

Still, it somehow feels to me like a sign of failing culture to see a bookstore with boarded windows. No matter how many books can dance on the head of a Kindle or a Nook, a bookstore offers more—a social and cultural experience, a bond, a brother/sisterhood. A point of light.

Nothing against the e-reader, but where is the human touch? Where are the associations and ideas that swarm the air in a place where books are sold? Where is the joke, the flirting wink, the endearment, the bold pronouncement? Where are the notes that make us a symphony instead of solos?

We owe bookstores our energy and our solidarity.

That’s what they’ve given to us.

Charles McNair is Paste‘s books editor. His novel Land o’ Goshen was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.

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