Monday, April 27, 2009

Where Have All the Bookstores Gone?

I could be like Fiona and have a recording of The Kingston Trio in the background singing "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?", but I won't. You can watch the video and listen by clicking the link.

Today, we ask the important and not-quite-rhetorical question, "Where have all the bookstores gone?"

There was a time when there were lots of small, niche bookstores all over. If you wanted mysteries, there was a store that specialized in them. Science fiction? - across the street. Romance? - three blocks down. Politics? - not far. Children's books? - all over.

But today, most of those little bookstores are gone, along with the clerks who had been there since the transition from cuneiform tablets ... people who could unerringly go to the exact spot in the dusty stacks to find that book you thought had long disappeared, and who could go on to recommend other things you might like.

What happened to the bookstores? A lot of things.

People don't read as much any more, for one. I can't imagine not reading, but I see a lot of people, particularly younger folks, who don't read anything more challenging than the latest issue of TV Guide or People magazine.

And books have gotten pretty expensive: new hardcovers can run to $30 or $40, especially for the nonfiction titles I often buy, and paperbacks can go for $15-$20. Is it any wonder that people now go to the big wholesale stores like Costco to buy their bestsellers, instead of going to the local specialty bookstore?

Rents have gone up, too, forcing out many smaller bookstores in favor of the big chains like Borders and Barnes and Noble. Some of those chain stores have knowledgeable staffs, but most of them rely on computers to look up the things that a little old clerk used to lead you to without fail.

People spend more time online as well. I still believe it's easier to read ink on paper, but many others would rather read things online...removing still more customers from traditional bookstores.

Last week, Marc Fisher wrote about the decline of the bookstore in an article in the Washington Post. Many of his observations are the same as the ones I've made over the years, but he also connects the loss of bookstores to the overall decline in our communities and our "sense of place." I agree.

I've written in this space before about the most wonderful teacher I ever had - the inimitable Mrs Penny Smith, she of the happy cackle and the "Expanding Horizons Nights" she hosted at her home for her high school Humanities students. When she retired, she opened a little bookstore called Calliope that was a wonderful place to go for books, peace and quiet, and stimulating conversation with a warm and erudite lady. Mrs Smith passed away many years ago, and in the place where Calliope once stood there's now a generic fast-food joint.

And we're all a little poorer for it.

Have a good day. Support your local bookstore. Tomorrow may be too late.

More thoughts coming.



John said...

Unfortunely, the local magic shop has also gone the way of the local bookstore. The internet's very low overhead has made it impossible for the retail shop owner to compete. But the loss is little old ladies or skilled magicians to lend a helping hand. The loss is a community loss, indeed.

Amanda said...

In recent years, I have been quite stingy with myself and tend to borrow books if I can instead of buying them.

BUT, since Aaron was born. I've really splurged on him. Many of his toys are hand me downs from me so I rationalized that I'm allowed to build him a small library! So...we visit book stores whenever we can. Even though there aren't many small specialty ones left, at least there are still big ones :)

The Mistress of the Dark said...

BOMC2 allows you to get one hard back book a month for 9.95 and its what you choose.

You know there are at least 3 bookstores and one chain in the South Side of Pittsburgh.

What I miss are the little used shops. I miss those.

michelle said...

I get all my books from the library. I used to buy books .... but it just got to be a waste of money.

Leslie David said...

I have 2 6-foot shelves that are double-stacked with paperbacks, and a small metal bookcase in my den. I'm limited in space, so I don't buy as many books as I used to, and for me to buy it it has to meet the "do I like this book well enough to re-read it?" I worked in a bookstore in college--guess where most of my salary went back to. I still read, but I go to the library and read the book there, and then if I like it enough I buy it. If you are looking for the local bookstore, come visit the used bookstore at Lake Anne in Reston--it's been there for a very long time. Some things like news I tend to read online rather than in print but there's nothing like a quiet afternoon, the pool and a book.

I hope your dad does better. Former bf's dad had 2 strokes, made worse by the fact that he refused treatment until it was too late and major motor damage had occurred.

fiona said...

LOL @ The Kingston Trio
I only buy books for gifts. For myself it's either the library OR one of my wonderful Thrift Stores. Shepherds Gate in particular always has a goos selection. Just the other month I bought all 12 books of the Left Behind series, hardback, in pristine condition for 25cents each!

bandit said...

My Dad was a butcher and I grew up in a corner grocery store. My 1st job was sorting soda bottles. I couldn't read but I knew which was a Pepsi bottle, Coke bottle, etc. by their shape and color. the corner grocery has also gone by the way side.

Jean-Luc Picard said...

Bookstores just seem to come in chain stores now.

Mike said...

If it's still open I know of a used book store in the St. Louis area. It's so crammed that you take your life in your hands going into the place.

St. Louis also has a once a year book fair that's huge. They claim it's the largest in the country.

SusieQ said...

The Border's bookstores are closing I heard. I'll miss them.

I buy too many books. I have too many books. I have not read all the books I have purchased. I find it hard to stay awake when reading a book. I believe this must be why I haven't read all the books I have purchased.

I love libraries. I hope they never close down. When my children were little I made sure to take them to our local library once a week so that they could check out some books to read. Our son is an avid reader now. He always has a book he is reading.