The Next Page: The Book Is Dead? Its Sellers Are Dying?
A bookseller's belief in the human need to read on paper, and meet like-minded souls while shopping.
December 21, 2008 5:00 AM
By John Schulman
I recently saw in the obits that The Book has just died and that The Bookstore is on its way out, too.
Cause of death? The Book had been fighting several illnesses for decades. First there was TV. Then chain stores like Barnes & Noble and Borders killed off most of the independent bookstores as well as many small publishers.
After that The Book was afflicted with on-demand publishing (books that are printed and bound only when there's an order for one). But the "book kiosks" that were supposed to become as prevalent as ATMs never appeared.
Then a number of Web sites including Amazon made the purchase of books as easy as a couple clicks, often at substantial discounts, resulting in another wave of bookstore closings.
The Internet rapidly became the prime source of information as Google and a number of university libraries, including the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon, engaged in massive digitizing projects (scanning texts to make them available and searchable online).
Amazon recently contributed to the demise of The Book by introducing the Kindle. But at nearly $400 this handheld reader of downloaded books has not yet caught on in a big way. Still, it didn't help.
The remaining booksellers had to work all the harder to keep their customers coming in, with discounts, coffee and pastries, music, readings, etc. They had to learn to be friendly and helpful, two traits that go against the grain of the personalities of most bookstore clerks.
But with high rents, big box stores a few blocks away and Web sites cutting into sales, bookstores in San Francisco, New York and elsewhere continued to shut down. A bookseller I know in Berkeley counted 57 closings in the Bay Area in just one year.
Watch out for shifting paradigms
We who sell used and rare books learned to work with the Internet to our advantage. There was a lot more information on rare, out-of-print and obscure books available to us online, and there were a number of sites that provided venues for selling used and rare books. It was always great to sell a book on the wildflowers of Tasmania to someone in Romania rather than wait 10 years for some traveler to stumble across it on our shelves.
Thousands of booksellers across the country closed their "brick and mortar" businesses and became entirely web-based. My wife and I, having opened our shop in 1991, thought it best to keep the shop open and also do an Internet mail-order business out of a warehouse in Wilkinsburg.
We weren't losing any money, the rent was still affordable, it was nice working with real human beings and having real conversations, and we also thought of our bookshop as a vital part of the kind of community we wanted to live in.
But it was just about a month ago that I read the news that The Book and The Bookstore were on their deathbeds. Oddly enough, I read it on my BlackBerry off a New York Times Web site, and don't think the irony was lost on me.
Eric Pfanner's Nov. 9 article, "Book Publishers Take Leaps into Digital" detailed the successful settlement of a lawsuit known as Authors' Guild vs. Google that was first filed in 2005.
According to the terms of the settlement, Google, which had been digitizing books for years, agreed that any proceeds resulting from licensing fees or sales of e-book files would go in part to Google and in part to the original rights-holders. Essentially, with the publishers' blessings, Google became the world's largest purveyor of current and out-of-print titles.
Mr. Pfanner quoted a Silicon Valley publishing executive as saying "the book business is under siege." Neill Denny, the editor of a trade publication called The Bookseller, was cited as writing in his blog, "Almost overnight, not only has the largest publishing deal been struck, but the largest bookshop in the world has been built, even if it is not quite open for business yet."
James Gleick also chimed in, with some pointers for publishers in a Nov. 29 Times piece, "How to Publish Without Perishing." He declared that some kinds of books have died already, notably encyclopedias and other reference works, replaced by Wikipedia and the Web version of the Oxford English Dictionary.
His advice to publishers at the end of the article is rather lame -- he urges them to remember books are a "thing of beauty," which people want to cherish. So: "Make it as well as you can."
But Messrs. Pfanner and Gleick do have a point. Booksellers are going to have to change to accommodate what Google is doing. Most successful bookshops carry three kinds of books: popular literature and modestly priced books for readers and walk-in traffic; rare titles and expensive books for collectors and gift-givers; and obscure, scholarly titles for academics and researchers.
In the used book market, modestly priced popular titles are still safe bets. The passer-by who purchases for his daughter a $10 used copy of a Harry Potter book doesn't want the Kindle version, and although there are hundreds of copies on the Internet for less, there are still many people who like to poke around bookshops for good reads priced half or less of retail.
And rare books are fairly safe from Google's incursion, too. The collector who buys a first printing of "Huckleberry Finn" isn't going to want the e-book. But that same collector will be comparing our price with the 40 or more first printings listed online, so the modern bookseller is going to have to compete with all the other bookdealers in the universe to land a deal.
Where Google will have the most impact is on those dealers who make their living, online, selling academic university press titles. The researcher interested in Romanian gold coinage of the 18th century is almost always going to download the e-book version of the best book on the subject rather than pay $50 or $60 for a real copy. Before Google's machinery kicks into high gear, the next couple years will be the last profitable ones for sellers of academic titles.
The Value-Added Human Factor
So what's a bookseller to do?
With The Book declared dead and The Bookstore wheezing into the latter stages of infirmity, we have to remember what bookstores can provide that the Internet cannot. And it is from movies, the other great medium of life's lessons, that we can draw our examples.
Bookstores are sites of romance. You only need to watch a couple of flicks to confirm that there's more eroticism in the Biography section than in any Games Nite at your local pub. In "The Big Sleep" (1946), for instance, Humphrey Bogart plays the detective Sam Spade. He's suspicious of a purveyor of rare books named Geiger, who really deals in smut and blackmail. When Spade finds out that Geiger's assistant Agnes doesn't know a hill of beans about rare books, he decides to stake out Geiger's place from Acme Book Shop across the street.
The clerk there, played by Dorothy Malone, flirts with Spade, who eventually produces a small bottle of rye from his pocket. Malone closes the shop, lowers the shade, takes off her eyeglasses and loosens the bow in her hair, causing Bogart to murmur appreciatively, "Well hellooo ..."
Flirting in our bookshop hasn't quite acquired the same glamour, but one time the shop manager Kris and I witnessed a couple flirting in our Psychology section. The dude was a huge fan of Rick Moranis, and was acting out favorite scenes for his baffled date. Kris didn't think their evening would end romantically, "great though Moranis is," he acknowledged.
Those who saw Woody Allen's "Hannah and Her Sisters" (1986) witnessed a slightly different approach taken by Michael Caine, who plays Elliot, who's secretly in love with his sister-in-law Lee (Barbara Hershey). Together they enter the Pageant Book Shop (a real place on East 9th St. in Manhattan, which sadly closed in 1999 and went cyber), a crowded lovely old bookshop with stacks of books everywhere. There Elliot buys Lee a copy of E. E. Cummings' poems and asks her to read a certain poem later at home.
Next scene is Lee at home in bed reading the poem, which is lusty and erotic (petals unfolding and whatnot), and realizing how Elliot feels about her. His scheme works.
Most romantics in our bookshop don't have the patience to go for the delayed love-bomb that Caine deployed, and engage in what my wife calls "semi-esoteric rap" right there in the aisles. This is when a man seeks to impress his consort with his worldliness and arcane knowledge. A variation on this is practiced with cool aplomb by Steve Carell's character in "The 40-Year-Old Virgin" (2005) when he banters with a pretty bookstore clerk. The pitfall is that the guy might contract what my wife calls "Male Knowledge Syndrome," and spout utter nonsense that sounds convincing but is patently untrue.
OK, if not romance, bookshops are great places to meet friends and have conversations. One of the saddest aspects of our culture's move toward Web-based activities is that it tends to isolate people and enable those who have hermetic tendencies to quarantine themselves still further. The Internet encourages onanism and disengagement rather than intimacy and communion.
Most booksellers are bookish and curmudgeonly, prone to various social stigmas, and completely uninterested in their customers' takes on literature, religion and politics. Their ideal connection with customers is the kind found at the heart of "84, Charing Cross Road" (1987) which is based on a book by Helene Hanff charting her 20-year correspondence with an English bookseller. In the movie Anne Bancroft and Anthony Hopkins engage in an intimate epistolary attachment unhampered by physical proximity.
We are delighted, however, when customers engage each other in conversation. Bookstores can encourage contact just by being fairly quiet sites for potential palaver. This may even lead to a purchase or two.
Jaded by life though we booksellers are, we would like to imagine that among our books, friendships have bloomed. But be careful: some customers like to be alone with their thoughts as they scan the shelves and may not take kindly to your overtures.
Bookstores are places of intrigue. If you've seen "Patriot Games" (1992) starring Harrison Ford as retired CIA agent Jack Ryan, you'll remember a scene in a bookstore that turns out to be a front for Ulster terrorists.
It is in a bookshop in Diagon Alley that Draco Malfoy's father slips into Harry Potter's bookbag Voldemort's magically infected journal. Remember, next time you're in a bookstore, that things might not be as they seem, and if you are observant and alert, you will notice clues that might give us away!
The screen treatment of the action-packed life of a bookdealer reaches its culmination in "The Ninth Gate" (1999), directed by Roman Polanski, as we watch book scout Johnny Depp, pursued by a sexy green-eyed succubus, travel all over Europe in order to collate a 17th-century book that may conjure the devil if properly interpreted. This is as realistic a look at the life of a bookseller as has ever been filmed.
But one might actually get intrigued by browsing the shelves of a bookshop. The Internet not only isolates people, it also sequesters information into discrete packets and categories. While we used to talk about "surfing" the Internet, hardly anyone really does that -- they just go to the same damn porn and/or news sites to get the latest.
In a bookshop, on the other hand, even one as organized as ours (not!), your eyes tend to slide to the next title over, and you might discover a book you hadn't thought about, or an artist you hadn't heard of. One of the greatest things about the human mind is its curiosity and whimsical inclination to free-associate. While we curse the rubber-neckers on the highway, we love them in the bookshop.
Looking at a screen makes one tired and depressed. The antidote to this is to turn off your computer and get thee to a bookstore. Reading text on a computer screen makes one's eyes and neck ache, no matter how ergonomic the setup. The book, which has not fundamentally changed for 500 years, is still the most portable and pleasurable way to read something. Spending too much time in front a computer can be soul-sucking, because deep down we know that the world presented by computers is lifeless, cold and no substitute for reality.
Ordering books online can also be headache-inducing, especially with used books, as there is a hefty percentage of books on the Web that are badly described and cataloged. It can be a hugely disappointing experience receiving a defective book from some stranger on the Web, and dealing with all the viruses, pop-up ads and phony inducements can be a real turnoff.
The Internet Will Someday Be Completely Ordinary
We believe that as the years go by there will be "Internet backlash," most readers will return to the shops. It will be like "Night of the Living Dead" or "28 Days Later," only with bookstores, and the zombies -- our customers -- will recover from a Google-induced daze.
Readers will rediscover the delight of physically handling an old book, thumbing through its silky pages, and getting a good whiff of that ancient and divine musty odor.
Old jazz will be playing in the background. The overhead lamps will pour forth warm yellow light. And the clerk behind the desk will lower the Dostoevsky novel he was reading, gaze up, and say, "Can I help you find something?"
is co-owner with his wife, Emily Hetzel, of Caliban Book Shop in Oakland (