A Bookstore Expedition

Lego Indiana Jones

I called it an expedition to motivate myself.  “Bookstore” these days means Barnes & Noble, and I don’t like to go there very much.  I think you’ll see why in the course of this post.

I went to look at their middle-grade fantasy books.  It’s time for summer reading, and some of the classics in this genre weave just the right spell of imaginative escapism:  books like Inkspell, Spiderwick, and  The Emerald Atlas.  Imagine my dismay when I got there and found the middle-grade section gone!  For years these books lived in the right-rear corner of the children’s section, but now all the signs said, “Young readers, grades 3-6.”  I looked through the children’s section and found a few familiar titles, but the group as a whole was no longer on display.

“Explorer” by Stephen Noble, http://www.stephennoble.com

The rationale became clear when I left the children’s section. Right at the entrance were two large racks of “Teen Paranormal Romance,” sporting the best display of any genre in the store – trade paperbacks with covers, not spines, showing. Marketing must have decided that closing the middle-grade commons would motivate younger girls to move up to a more lucrative market. Apparently books like Garth Nix’s Arthurian stories for boys, or Newberry winners like Lois Lowry and Madeline L’Engle, no longer warrant shelf space. A book or two might have been stuck in between the 3d grade readers, but if so, I missed them.

I don’t begrudge Barnes & Noble its marketing efforts, but it’s been many years since I discovered anything new in their stores.  Discovery used to be part of going to bookstores.  “Browsing” once was the order of the day, and some of those discoveries changed my life.  Like the time when I was 18, and on pure impulse, bought a copy of Folklore in the English and Scottish Ballads.  The spark that title ignited still burns.

Now I make most of my book discoveries online.  This morning, Amazon sent me an email, based on my search and reading preferences:  “Best Middle-grade books in May.”  Where am I likely to go to read sample pages and shop?

I went on my expedition a week ago, two days before Barnes & Noble and Microsoft announced their partnership to champion the Nook.  As I sat down to write this post, their merger seemed huge.  It’s not about the big six publishers anymore, is it?  The future belongs to the big three – Amazon, Apple, and B&N / Microsoft.

The big six had their chance to open ebook divisions, or even join ranks in a partnership, but sticking to rear-view vision, that boat has sailed.  Now its hard to imagine any business model that can save them.  Their mantra has been, “People will always want paper,” but will they?  I don’t know.  What follows is speculation as I look at the books on our shelves.

Books that are read only once – meaning the vast majority of paperbacks, will do fine as ebooks.  Most textbooks for most grades of school should do well as ebooks too, and lighten the load of student backpacks.

Coffee table books might warrant larger readers, which will probably soon be embedded in coffee tables.  You see desk mounted touch-screen computers on shows like Hawaii Five-O.  I bet it won’t be long until they appear in furniture stores.  Same with fine art prints for the walls – think of a blend of existing digital picture frames with wall mounted HDTV’s.

So what books do I really value in paper?  Books like Lord of the Rings and Wind in the Willows, books I treasure and read again and again, yet those are pretty rare purchases and won’t keep printers in business.

Spiritual books of all sorts, for I underline those and fill them with post-it notes.  How-to books, on subjects from  gardening to computer programming texts.  I used the latter until they fell apart at work.  Any book where I write notes in the margin.  Right now, ereader bookmarks and margin notes are inadequate, but this should be an easy fix in the future.  Software that lets me use my laptop keyboard when I plug in on USB will fix much of the problem.

I don’t want print to go away.  I don’t want to see used bookstores close or raise their prices to “antique” levels.  There’s magic in turning pages, in the smell of ink and paper.  I’ve read so many stories that begin when someone finds a mysterious, yellowing book of lore, that I can’t go into an old bookstore without wondering if “today will be the day.”  It’s hard to imagine those stories with mysterious, yellowing, kindles!

No, I don’t want print to go away, but it’s hard to imagine any other future for the printed word.  Can you?

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9 Responses to A Bookstore Expedition

  1. I think your analysis of which types of books do best in e- vs print is spot on. Personally, I don’t have any real romantic attachment to paper books. However I do see a frightening long-term archive problem with the switch to ebooks. What happens in 50 years when all these books are as unreadable as my 5.25″ floppy disks? The only interface you need to read and preserve paper is a pair of eyes.

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    • Very good point! I remember hearing an interview with Clifford, author of “Silicon Snake Oil,” 1995, in which the archiving question came up. Stoll said there’s still nothing better than acid-free paper in a climate controlled environment – it’s still good enough for The Book of Kells and the Magna Carta!

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  2. Rosi says:

    I don’t think anyone is going to teach this old dog the new e-book trick. Our daughters gave my husband a Kindle quite a while ago and, even though I’ve asked him to load some things on it for me, I have yet to use it. It just doesn’t seem right. He’s read a couple of books on it, but migrates back to paper books and stays with them. I don’t know a soul who prefers ebooks except my sister who lives in an RV full time and worries about carrying the weight of books. But I have little doubt my kids and grandkids will turn to them as time goes on.

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    • Being a lifelong packrat, with boxes of books in the garage because there’s no room in the house, I routinely download action-adventure and similar titles to my kindle. In addition to non-physical storage, I know another part of the lure is instant gratification – I can be reading in 60 seconds.

      I wound up choosing a kindle because Jessi said she’d reviewed all the devices and that was easiest on the eyes.

      It’s not that hard, and the day you decide you want to learn it is the day you will.

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  3. Adam says:

    I want nothing to do with eBooks, ever. I love my hardcovers and paperbacks, but I completely understand the frustration with browsing stores sometimes.

    I’ve been getting annoyed with Amazon’s suggestions recently. I’ve been getting suggestions for different versions of the same book, which means I end up having to tell it 3 or 4 times that I own one book. It’s also really narrowed my suggestions down a lot because it just increased the preference for once style of book.

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    • I’m not talking about the Amazon preference list – I rarely consult it. At some point I must have signed up for email updates of new releases and I’ve gotten some useful ideas from those.

      My favorite big stores are gone now – Tower and Books Inc. For a time it was serendipity here – we had one of each within a mile of each other. Tower was full of quirky titles, and the Books Inc. had buyers for different sections who could help you identify titles of interest.

      And even before that, there was a sci-fi/fantasy bookstore, run as a kind of hobby by a guy who was a serious collector. First editions of Bradbury titles, Batman #1, etc. He would go to all the cons with his wares, and meanwhile you could give him a sub-genre and he’d find you books you had never heard from that fit. You, in particular, would have loved it!

      Oh well – everything changes and the one thing I’m reasonably sure of is that the future will not match my expectations…

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  4. JT says:

    I hate the thought that you are right. One day in the not so distant future we will pull out Inkspell, perhaps for the great grandchildren and they will marvel at it and crinkle their noses at the distinct odor, oohing and ahhing at this vintage piece of ancient history pulled from the basement crypt.

    Little Johnny always the brave one will blurt out “What is it and what do you do with it?” and we will grapple with our words trying to verbalize to this young’n the joy and journey of turning the pages on our way to somewhere else.

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    • I hope it won’t be that dire or extreme. I think more of the edition of Lord of the Rings, with Alan Lee’s illustrations that I got when the movies came out. Not cheap. A collectible. That’s more what I envision in the near term. Or because the masses can no longer afford them, print books becoming a fad of the upper echelons.

      At the same time, for many books, the story’s the thing, not how I get it. This applies, say, to Agatha Christie, (who I truly enjoy btw). For me, Hercule Poirot comes through as well on an ebook as it does in a paperback.

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      • JT says:

        Yes, a well written story does come through regardless if it is ink or digital, perhaps it is just whimsical nostalgia and an adversity to change that causes me to conjure up such images 🙂

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