The Life and Death of the Book Store

I don’t mean to wax lyrical and mewl like an old lady on her stoep with a blanket on her knees and a cat on her lap, but I remember drive-ins. The slap chips, the giant radios that threatened to crack the window, my parents smoking freely while we ran down to the playground just under the screen until the next movie. We could watch in our pajamas and fall asleep where we watched, and maybe the sound wasn’t great but it was better than the movie house because at least no one could throw popcorn at us.

Now, the drive-ins are nearly dead. One remains in Joburg, and for how much longer I’m not entirely sure. (Their offerings are outstandingly paltry.) They died for a number of reasons: muggings, poor quality food and film and the brutal Joburg winter that makes any outdoor activity impossible. With movies becoming more accessible, portable and affordable, the drive-in has become a sepia relic. Like so many other things, we absently miss them but didn’t really do much to support them and stop them from going under.

Which brings me to the constant cry of ‘the bookstore is dying’! The Mail and Guardian posted this article about the death of the bookstore. Interviewing several bookstore owners as well as my boss Ben Williams, the article attempts to offer a multi-faceted view of the book industry. I appreciate the efforts and the statistics are nice to have. Let’s have a look at some of them:

On May 29, The Nation ran a piece by Steve Wasserman, editor of the Los Angeles Times Book Review. He reeled off dizzying statistics: there were about 4 000 independent bookstores in the United States 20 years ago; less than half remain. About 2% of Americans had an e-reader or tablet three years ago, and by January this year the number had swelled to 28%. In 2011, he wrote, e-book sales for most publishers made up between 18% and 22% of total sales.

That article, ‘The Amazon Effect’ can be found in its entirety here. (It is lengthy, but definitely worth the read.) That article goes on to state:

 Just three years ago, only 2 percent of Americans had an e-reader or a tablet; by January of this year, the figure was 28 percent. And Amazon, despite watching its market share drop from 90 percent of the American e-book market in 2010 to about 55–60 percent today, reached a milestone just under three years after the Kindle was introduced. “Amazon.com customers now purchase more Kindle books than hardcover books,” Bezos crowed, “astonishing when you consider that we’ve been selling hardcover books for 15 years, and Kindle books for 33 months.”

Jeff Bezos’ deeply irritating personality aside, the picture is a little grim for bookstores. Alongside the purported death of the publishing houses (we’ll still waiting for that), this year alone has seen the closure of several notable bookstores in South Africa: the Boekehuis, for example. The Wordsworth in V&A Waterfront. EB in Irene and Balito. And as the Mail and Guardian noted, Kalk Bay Books very nearly went under as well. Never mind the independents and second-hand stores that quietly drowned in debt and silence without anyone noticing.

However, it doesn’t mean that all bookstores will become a thing of the past. In the panicking about ereaders, a great number of people forget that 3 million Kindles and 15 million iPads in a sea of 7 billion people is pittance. (I guess because only white readers matter? But I digress.) And while global literacy rates and access to books is not as high as I would like (especially in Africa), there are millions out there who don’t have Kindles and who will still buy paper books. After all, it is sheer idiocy to assume that people who don’t have Kindles/iPads/Nooks don’t matter. What matters, as it always has, is marketing and accessibility. I have discussed before why paper books are so expensive in stores, and those problems need to be addressed. One of the bookstore owners in the M&G article put it quite succinctly:

‘The death of the bookstore is bullshit,” Mervyn Sloman, the owner of the Book Lounge in Cape Town told me over the phone. He was clearly irritated by my presumption. “I own a bookshop and we’re not dying.”

Sloman opened at the end of 2007, not long before the global recession hit. While he admitted the industry was in flux and that last year was a bit rough, he said this year was looking up. “Part of it is about — and how to say this without sounding like an asshole — you have to take responsibility for what you are doing. If anybody thinks they can find a space, fill it with books and wait for people to stream in they are not going to last two weeks. But if you are prepared to work bloody hard and be creative and innovative, then it is completely doable.”

There has to be something better than wailing and whining about how we should all roll over and die, sacrifices on the altar of Amazon. What we should be doing is going back to books as art, as objects of joy and a celebration of the delicious, febrile nature of human imagination and endeavor.

It’s not over yet. Publishers are still bringing the world magnificent books, and bookstores are still lovingly curating them. Not everyone loves Kindle, and while Amazon is a giant, it is also unwieldy, unfeeling and unethical. The Amazon self-publishing ponzi scheme will collapse under the weight of its inherent mediocrity and the world will always value content, even if they have to pay a little more for it.  We should be focusing on accessibility, making books more affordable by dropping the customs tax or giving printers subsidies. In Japan, daily manga collections are published cheaply in disposable bundles. This makes a national art form accessible to all, and nicer colour versions are available for those who want them.

There’s always a better way of doing things, and while the solutions aren’t always easy, they are there. Publishers could treat authors better than they currently do. Bookstores can provide a personal and caring service that Amazon can’t ever hope for. How about some of the money spent on sport in South Africa being put to making printing books cheaper? Translating them into more languages? I refuse to accept that it is okay to bow under the pressure. The most important thing to start with is to abide by Douglas Adams’ advice:

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5 Comments Add yours

  1. Deva says:

    It annoys me that people view new technology as a replacement for existing technology. I think that different technologies supplement each other, and would venture to say that most people who have Kindles also buy books. Besides, if Kindles get people who would usually shy away from books (e.g. my teenage sister) reading, than I am a fan. Personally, I can’t convert – it must be the smell, or the pencil notes in the margins, or the typography….

  2. Deva says:

    It annoys me that people view new technology as a replacement for existing technology. I think that different technologies supplement each other, and would venture to say that most people who have Kindles also buy books. Besides, if Kindles get people who would usually shy away from books (e.g. my teenage sister) reading, than I am a fan. Personally, I can\’t convert – it must be the smell, or the pencil notes in the margins, or the typography….

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