Friday, May 25, 2012
Bookstores: misplaced nostalgia?
I love bookstores, but the widespread feeling about how wonderful they are (or were) seems to me to be more myth than reality. There's a romantic image of bookstores as magical places where you can have a wonderful experience chatting with a bookstore owner who just happens to share all your preferences and knows the same subject areas as you, and can lay her hands instantly on the perfect book you were unknowingly searching for, guaranteed to please.
That just ain't so.
Most of the time, my local bookstores didn't actually stock the book I wanted: they'd have to order it, and it would take anything from a week to a few months. Very rarely did anyone actively recommend me a book: unless I was a regular, they'd usually sit there watching as I browsed, and then take my money in silence if I chose to buy something. If I asked for a book on a particular subject, they often didn't have a clue. That's not a complaint, just an observation: it's not really surprising when you're asking for something really specialist, say, a book on the political machinations in the Punjab leading up to the First Sikh War: they'll simply say, "we have a history section there, and a military section there, and maybe you could try the travel section under India." I don't expect them to know everything, but let's not pretend that bookstores were staffed by omniscient beings who could instantly refer you, with the unerring sense of Buffy's Giles, to the one book that you need, no matter how obscure the subject. If I could find a good specialist bookstore, then sure, they were often great, but that could involve travelling 200 miles and an entire day's journey, just to track down one book.
I'll miss bookstores for the smell, for the ambience, and for the pleasure of browsing through actual books, but not, I'm afraid, for the service they provide. Sadly, Amazon has them beat on that, and there's no point pretending otherwise. It was the same for record shops, and the same for video shops. Most of them were just racks of a small selection of product, staffed by people who didn't really know much about the sort of books, music or films that interested me, and which couldn't compete with online services for range of product, serendipitous discovery, qualified recommendations, speed of service, convenience, or price. It's sad to see bookstores closing, and the implications for the book trade and for readers are scary, but the truth is that in most cases, Amazon just do the job far, far better.