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.


Matt Kelland said...

This is a great example of rose-tinted specs: Why Indies Matter is a video campaign that captures unscripted and impromptu short testimonials about independent bookstores from authors, customers, and indie supporters around the country.

In the first video, she claims that unless you have physical bookstores, you won't stumble across new books. That's just absolute rubbish. I've found many books through all sorts of different routes: blogs, forums, "people who bought X", "Amazon recommends", mailing lists, FB ads & posts, Goodreads, and so on. Bookstores are often the least effective, because they have such limited stock.

As an example of this, she holds up a kids' book, and says "you'd never have found this book without walking into a bookstore, because only 3000 were printed." Well, that sums things up perfectly - even if I had gone into my local bookstore, I wouldn't have found that book, because they probably won't stock it!

Susan McFarlane said...

It really depends on what you have in your local area.

I was lucky enough to have a sci-fi / fantasy book store called Transreal in Edinburgh. It was fantastic to be able to browse there and discover new authors and stories. I spent many afternoons there browsing their new stock.

They had new titles as soon as they came out, including american books which I couldn't readily find in Waterstones. They could also offer advice of the "If you like X then have you tried Y..." type.

They were able to do this though, because they were a specialist shop. If my interest was military history, for example, or if I lived in a more remote area then I would be unable to take advantage.

Richard Grove said...

I respectfully disagree with you, Matt. I think you've been shopping at the wrong bookstore. I've been a bookstore clerk for over 35 years now and good stores like the Iliad Bookshop, where I work, does exactly what you claim most stores don't do: we actively help customers every day, we recommend, we often research for customers and have book discussions every single day. Not only that, but we tailor our book buying to customers needs. Our selection changes daily and we often have boxes and boxes of FREE books outside our door for anyone to take.

I think you give too much credit to Amazon. Yes, you can find books for a penny, but specialized, hard to find titles will often be over priced. We have books on our sale table that are on Amazon for $100 because of book scouts driving prices up for limited editions of books.

No rose-tinted specs here. The decline of used bookstores in particular is bad for our society because not only do well-managed stores provide good, hard-to-find books at reasonable prices, but they are also a nexus for community dialog and public expression. Politics, history, poetry and more are discussed at our store every day.

Finally, at a good bookstore you interact with PEOPLE, not software. Customer service is easier, problems are solved and we provide additional service to customers who become friends to the store.

Come to our store and I'll prove all of these assertions to you, Matt. And we aren't unique, there are at least half a dozen stores that I can think of in Los Angeles that all offer unique books and excellent service.


Matt Kelland said...

Ricky - I absolutely agree with you that GOOD bookstores do all the things you say. Most bookstores, though, aren't good bookstores.

Phil said...

It's almost as hard to find a good book shop as it is to find a good plumber or mechanic. Most independent book stores in the UK are full of coffee table books and the clerks seem really irritated by questions. I agree with Matt that my perfect bookstore is a fantasy, and I love Amazon for convenient 1p copies of old books I need for my research. But I also realise that there are great book shops out there, just not anywhere near me.

Dave Morris said...

I completely agree with you about general bookstores, Matt. However, when I think back to hours spent in Dark They Were & Golden-Eyed as a schoolboy, that really was full of serendipitous discoveries and enlightening discussions. So perhaps, as with music, we'll see the specialist bookstores hanging on a little longer than the chains. (First, of course, the specialist stores would have to revert to that kind of intensive hobbyist experience.)