There’s a secondhand bookshop that pops up next to my office every Wednesday during semester. Wednesday is market day – we have a number of specialty shops that appear on campus. Jewellery, clothes, plants, food; there seems to be something new every week. Students browse the selection between classes, and sometimes I see them walking off to their lectures with a pot plant under their arms. I recognise the vendors who come back each week, and we greet each other with a smile. But the bookshop is my favourite.
Perusing the boxes of books today gave me cause to reflect on the role of bookshops in our increasingly technologised world. More specifically, I thought about the ways in which we select books to read.
It’s no secret that bookshops are under threat, especially as online booksellers and eBooks capture more of the market. The post-Gutenberg era might seem like a brave new world, but it is still in a state of flux. It’s easy to blame the digital revolution for the closure of many independent booksellers, but the truth is that numerous economic forces are at work. However, I believe there’s still a role for traditional bookshops in our society, and the secondhand collection outside my office is a good example.
What attracts me to this stall is the sheer variety of books. Today I found Brian Greene’s The Fabric of the Cosmos in the same pile as Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto. In the next box was a collection of Margaret Atwood novels alongside a series of World War Two history books. There was also a surprisingly large number of SF Masterworks novels – the old ones with the black spines. Autobiographies are paired with thrillers. Technical manuals sit alongside Dickens. There is no logic, no order. It is pure, wonderful chaos.
I could never find this haphazard conjunction of literature in an online environment. Most online booksellers allow you to search for titles or authors or keywords, or perhaps browse by genre. But you’d never find a Brian Greene science book next to Walpole’s founding text of Gothic fiction. These random combinations are the exclusive domain of real-life bookshops, where displays like these are the whim of human shop assistants, not the logical algorithms of a computer. And you know what? It works.
It’s no secret that I prefer print books over eBooks. And my reasons are the cliché, oft-repeated arguments of book lovers across the world. I love the smell of books. I love the tactile sensation of the pages against my fingers. I love the way they bend and flex in my hands. I love the way they look on my bookshelf. I even love dusting them every few months. It is a labour of love. No eReader can compare to the tactile experience of having a paperback in your lap. And although I admit the obvious advantages of eBooks – specifically, being able to carry hundreds of books on one device – I’d still prefer to have that dog-eared paperback with me when I travel. Going into a bookshop and being able to smell those pages and flick through some paperbacks is definitely more interesting than clicking on my mouse. Though – I admit! – most bookshops won’t let me browse at 3am when I am in my underwear and delirious from lack of sleep. Perhaps one day.
It is encouraging to see in recent months that many bookshops are lowering their prices to match their online competition. Similarly, the online price is steadily creeping upwards. Amazon and Book Depository did so well initially because their books were so cheap. Combine that with free shipping and the only frustration is having to wait a week for the books to arrive. (I live in Perth, don’t forget – it would be faster to order something from Mars.) Of course, independent bookshops have other costs to worry about. Renting shop space, salaries, and numerous other overheads. It is no surprise that books cost more when they’re on the shelf. One of my friends is a manager at one of Perth’s most successful independent bookshops, and she has always maintained that customers are not just paying for the book, but the experience of going into the bookshop and being able to browse the shelves. You are paying for the staff who can assist you. They’re the ones who have ordered the books you see on the shelves – you’re paying for their expertise. Think of it as a service charge.
I believe that bookshops are not a thing of the past. Bookshops are the place to go to explore that tactile connection with books. They allow us to browse across genres, as cookbooks and philosophy appear on the same shelf, and Marx and Rowling make strange bedfellows. The ability to pick up the book and flick through it before making the purchase means that bookshops are the place to go when we’re feeling undecided about what we want to read next. And we never know the gems that we will discover there. It is a process of selection. Online booksellers are yet to invent something that can rival this experience.
Today’s purchase was The Fabric of the Cosmos. It is sitting on my desk as I write this, and that brings a smile to my face.