I believe in Books. Books is a God with a growing number of temples, aka bookstores, all over the world. In the US alone, according the 2002 census count, there are some 19,725 bookstores. Of course, compared with the roughly 300,000 outlets devoted to Yahweh, Books is strictly a minor deity. Still, minor or not, what’s important for believers is that there be a temple within reach. There are about a dozen where I live, so come Saturday, I shower, crack a coconut, and step out for some face time. It’s a ritual carried over from childhood. My late father was a Books devotee, and just as we inherit our Gods, we inherit the rituals too. My father and I used to browse on Sundays rather than Saturdays, and consumed idlis-and-madras-coffee rather than the bagels-and-coffee I now have, and we used to walk to the bookshops rather than drive, but these are minor differences. When I remember the spring in his step, the reckless disregard for what he could afford, and his delight in the rare find (“Solutions to the 1948 Cochin Board Chemistry Exams!”), I see the origins of my faith.
Lately though, I’ve begun to notice that faith is not enough. I still visit the temples, still stroll the aisles, still probe and prod various books, and still settle in the smelly sofas to sample my stash of possibles. But actually buy a book? God, no! In my last visit to the local B&N, I sampled Nussbaum’s From Disgust to Humanity and was seized with the urge to buy it. Did I? No. Jeff Vandermeer’s gorgeous Steampunk anthology? No. Heileman and Halperin’s Game Change? No. Michael Pollan’s Food Rules? No. Johnson and Kwak’s 13 Bankers? Thirteen times, no. Good books, even great books: still no.
The reason, obviously, is that it no longer makes economic sense to buy books in bookstores. Why the hell would I pay $19.25 for Goldratt’s The Choice when I can get a nice used copy for $7, including S&H, from Bookfinder? So what if it’s used? All books eventually become mulch anyway; used copies merely get there mulch faster. And when Kindle/Apple finally unclasp their DRM legs and allow readers to have their way with content, physical bookstores will make even less economic sense. In a world where you can get a book the minute it’s released (and when quantum clouds become a reality, perhaps even before it is written), Books is everywhere.
Compare this with the traditional model. A book is released. Hooray. A week or so later, it’s sent to distributors. The crates are unloaded, stacked, stashed and carved into smaller cartons to be trucked, along with similar items, to wholesalers/smaller-distributors (~1-2 months). This process repeats until a few copies finally end up in bookstores (~1-5 months). Two weeks to three months later, if the book doesn’t do well, it’ll be sent back, modesty compromised, back to the publisher. Who then pulps it. Camera pullback. The next crateload of books is seen leaving the publisher’s warehouse. Cycle of life, African drums. Brilliant.
It’s a suicidal business model. Johannes Gutenberg died broke, and publishers haven’t had much luck since. So why do they persist in the worship of such a ball-buster God? Eugene Schwartz, in a great numbers-rich article on book distribution, offers one answer:
One might ask what motivates people to keep this complex system going. After all, although a lot of cash may flow through, it usually takes its time and leaves behind relatively modest portions, if any. As to why we’re in this business and why we persist, Miller [one of the experts] explains, ‘To have a bookstore is part of the American Dream. It is a form of self-expression.
Right. Like makeup, body piercings, and tattoos.
Truth is, physical bookstores have basically become brick & mortar display screens. They have exceptional resolution, cool 3-D features, terrific affordance, and are totally immersive. What you see is what you can get. Unfortunately, the reverse is also true. What you get is what you see. Want that 1948 Chemistry solutions to the Cochin Board Exams? Asimov’s annotated guide to Don Juan? Well, if wishes were horses, then why aren’t you riding the net, Quixote? Bookstores may be one of those in-between inventions. Like Egyptian multiplication. We’re not giving up on multiplication any time soon, but there are better ways now.
If bookstores are to survive, they may need to charge for the service they are really selling: the atmosphere. Bookstores may need to become Lookstores. Talk to any Books worshipper, and you’ll hear the same shiny-eyed theme: “I love browsing in bookstores.” Exactly. Browsing. As in, grazing but not paying for the grass. Because grass is now everywhere, we cows will no longer buy grass from a grass-store. Bookstores might as well get used to it.
Keith Swenson thinks that in the future bookstores might become mini-printing presses; that would handle the problem of what-you-get-is-what-you-see. Maybe. I suppose you could buy books at a Lookstore, but it’ll be expensive, as all unit jobs must be. I see them more as lifestyle places. We’ll hang around lookstores for the same reason people hang around churches and art galleries. It’s an alternative to cock fighting. It’s classy. It’s superior. It’s fun. It’s a great place to take your kid, show them the ropes, stuff them with bagels and madras coffee, and acquaint them with all the troublemakers in history. Most were never able to move more than a few volumes, but that sufficed to move the world. Those who believe in Books take that on faith. And as faiths go, perhaps it’s not an ignoble one.