A Post-Bookstore World

So, Borders is closing. Gone. Kaputsky. 399 stores. 10,000 employees.

I feel bad for those employees.

I don’t, in general, feel bad about Borders.

I wish I did.

I grew up with books. My parents read Stephen King. I don’t remember a time when I haven’t been reading. I read enough books that I’m technically never actually between books; there’s always something I’ve started and probably mean to go back to at some point. The library has been my happy place.

But things change.

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When I was eight or nine years old, my uncle bought my siblings and me Sony Walkmans for . . . I want to say Christmas, but I don’t remember it has having been cold. I just remember the Walkmans, which were small and grey with foamy orange headphones, and there were no cassettes involved; they were strictly radios, with a little plastic bubble next to a knob by which to tune.

We set our Walkmans to our local radio station, and the three of us danced around our coffee table. I might have been eight. Probably not even.

But I still remember that moment. Almost as vividly as I remember finishing Needful Things and realizing I’m a writer.

*

Music has always been central to my life. My parents often had the stereo on. Carols at the holidays, Bon Jovi during the summer. The local stations–Eagle 106 and Y100–while my mother cooked dinner.

As a sophomore in high school, I inherited my father’s old quadraphonic system. This was a time of Green Day’s Dookie. I used to buy Maxell cassettes and tape songs off the radio. CDs were still relatively nascent, and you certainly couldn’t record them yourself yet.

I bought my first CD system as a senior in high school, and I brought it with me to college, and boy did I collect CDs. Throughout college and a couple years afterward, I must have purchased close to 1000 cds. I had several towers.

And then I found Windows Media Player, and I got a laptop with a spacious hard drive, and I started saving music to it. Eventually hard drives got bigger, and eventually I could buy one that could hold all my CDs, which I sold, because when I listened to music, I did so through my laptop, using headphones, and I had the music on the hard drive, anyway, so there wasn’t really much use. Eventually I stopped buying CDs altogether and just borrowed them from the library and ripped them to my computer. Unless I could get them for five bucks at Best Buy.

I lusted after an iPod.

I bought one, finally, in 2007, when Apple released the 160gb Classic. It was the first model on which I could store all the music I’d accumulated.

I now have a collection of nearly 50000 songs. I have them on an external hard drive attached to a desktop computer that runs a program called Audiogalaxy that allows me to listen to my entire collection from anywhere. I have access to it at work. On my phone. So long as my desktop is connected.

Admittedly, it’s futzed out a couple of times. Comcast has failed, which makes me glad I have a few gigs on my phone.

Which is what I use to listen to when I’m on the go, anyway. I have a Samsung Vibrant, with both the Audiogalaxy app and a music player from Google. I have the Google Music app, because I have Music by Google, but it only accepts 20000 songs for now, and that’s like three or four years ago for me.

I still listen to music. All the time. On my laptop, I use Media Monkey to connect to my home server, giving me that local access to the whole shebang.

I listen to the radio in the car. Mainly because I keep forgetting to buy a connector for my MP3 player, which is no longer an iPod. When I was in California, I had a little gadget that let me play my iPod over the car’s speakers. There might be a CD player, I don’t even know.

I don’t buy CDs anymore. If there’s music I want, I download it, usually from Amazon. Sometimes Apple. I tend not to care where the music comes from, so long as I get it.

Because that’s the point. Getting it, and listening to it.

I don’t even have a CD player anymore. I have several close friends who are musicians and have either made demos or actually released albums, and if I’ve asked for a copy and they’ve told me they’ll get me a CD, I always say, “Um. Can you, like, email them? Or just shoot me the iTunes link.”

(“I’ll never give up my CDs. I love opening a new one, tearing off the shrink wrap. I love the smell of new plastic, and how the light against the disc makes a rainbow. I love reading CD booklets while I listen to the CD, following along with the lyrics and seeing who the musician thanks. CDs sound so much better than cassettes, and I like browsing the music section of Virgin Megastore, pausing at each listening station to check out a new band I’ve never heard of.”)

*

I love stories. And books. I built my book case to hold my special ones, my signed books, the novels I’d clutched while waiting at Borders WTC for seven hours. I own several books I’ve seen sell for hundreds of dollars, not that I’d really consider selling them.

I can’t tell you the last time I went to a library.

I can tell you the last time I went to a bookstore. It was to a Borders, in fact, that was closing here, in Pittsburgh. Everything was 80% off, and the shelves were empty and they were selling the wood, too. I bought six books for twenty bucks.

I haven’t touched a one.

One of them, ironically, is about the publishing industry. I can’t remember the name, but it’s a big, thick beast full of charts and tables and statistics. I bought it because I thought it would be good to know before I realized how backward looking it really was.

Before that, the last bookstore I went to was the Strand, at 12th and Broadway just south of Union Square in Manhattan, with its miles of used books and its concrete floors and its slightly musty smell. It’s my favorite bookstore in the world because the books are usually less than half price, and they have a lot of advance review copies they sometimes sell ahead of publication date, and most of all because it’s a fucking bookstore. You want coffee? Go to Whole Foods, or Barnes & Noble Union Square. You want DVDs or CDs? They might have a few but you’re better off–wait for it–at Barnes & Noble Union Square.

You want books? You want unique books? You want table after table and shelf after shelf of books?

Stick around.

You won’t hear Katy Perry over the sound system. You won’t see the Jersey Shore board game. I never looked for Snooki’s “novel,” but I know you can find Twilight up in juvenile fiction, where it belongs, unless of course they’re completely sold out of it, which is entirely possible because let’s be honest people love that shit and The Strand has to make some money somehow when all the books are 60% off.

Don’t miss the rare books room. I’d tell you what’s in it but that would only ruin the surprise.

*

One of the coolest museums I’ve ever been to was the Rosenbach, in Philadelphia. Elizabeth Kostova visited there when she was writing The Historian because among the Rosenbach’s collection is not just an early copy of Stoker’s Dracula but the manuscript itself. With Stoker’s notes. Which just goes to show . . . er. Probably nothing, actually. But you want to write a real vampire novel, you do that sort of research. Otherwise, you’re going to end up with defanged vamps who sparkle in the sun and nobody wants to read that sh–

Er. Okay, bad example.

There, in the Rosenbach, I saw one of Shakespeare’s folios. Right there, in the cabinet, and all that separated me from it was a bit of glass.

There’s also a room with the easel on which Maurice Sendak composed Where the Wild Things Are. Which was my first ever book. I mean, I probably had books before then, but my copy of Where the Wild Things Are was given to me as a gift by the owner of the liquor store my father frequented.

There’s also a fully decorated room, though what it’s fully decorated as eludes me.

*

Last September, I purchased a Kindle from Amazon. One can’t really rip books to it the way one can rip CDs onto a hard drive, but that’s okay. I don’t re-read my books constantly.

The books, shopping well, cost about the same as the remaindered hardcovers at your local Bor–Barnes & Noble, which is really all I ever bought from them, anyway, because why buy a magazine when you can find stuff online, and why buy a book at full price when you can get the same one from Amazon Marketplace for a penny? I’d easily drop a hundred bucks on an armload of remaindered novels.

The Kindle has changed my reading experience in literally every way besides reading itself. The screen is good enough, bright enough, contrast-y enough, that reading on it is unlike reading on a page, or reading on an LCD, and so, if I find a long online essay, I use a plug-in to send it straight to my Kindle. That’s what I’d do with this post, for example. Which, in ways, maybe changes the way I’m writing. If I find a good article in a magazine, I go that magazine’s site and see if I can find the article online, and then send it to my Kindle.

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Which isn’t to say that I intend to give up paper. For me, though, paper books have taken on a greater significance, and when I buy them, I tend to go to the secondary or collectible market to buy signed first editions. I have a copy of Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere that is signed and dated before the first edition was actually published, and I’ll not be trading that any time soon (though I prefer the text of the British version, because it’s unabridged).

On the other hand, would I read it? I’ll be honest: doubtful. I’ve already grown accustomed enough to reading on my Kindle that I actually prefer to do so, so I’ll just buy signed copies of the books I love to put them on my shelf, while I read their electronic versions on my gadget.

What I think I wonder is whether books–actual paper books–will become for the publishing industry what vinyl records became for the music industry; favored by audiophiles who prefer the “warmth” or “fidelity” of the format but in general eschewed by the mainstream in favor of practical technology. Music stores still exist, after all; they’re mostly independent, usually not chains, and they sell CDs and probably records and usually tee shirts and other merchandise. In fact, I’m thinking here of Amoeba Music in Hollywood, which is large and independent and–well, I’d say still thriving but truth be told I haven’t really paid it any attention since I left LA 3 years ago. It might not even be there.

I just don’t see big retail stores dedicated to books surviving much longer, in the same ways that Virgin and Tower didn’t last. And sure, one could look at that as the end of an era and lament the loss, or then again one could look at it rather as the beginning of a new era, with new possibilities and opportunities. I’ve seen people worry that the failure and closing of bookstores might mean publishers will take less risk on new authors, but truthfully, publishers have been averse to such risk for a long time now, and are far more likely to put their considerable weight behind Snooki’s reality-television platform than anyone actually qualified as a writer. For a long time now, the publishing industry has been pretty actively hostile toward new authors, with so many corporations outright refusing unagented submissions and so many agents outright refusing, in many cases, to even respond to submissions (much less reject them), usually while whinging that they have oh-so-much “real” agenting work to do, so they can’t respond to all their submissions, so if you don’t hear back in, say, six months, just assume it’s a pass.

Similarly, many decry taking advantage of direct access as circumventing some perceived vetting system, but it’s not really like the publishing industry has been about vetting for many years.

*

Don’t worry. Borders has come and gone. Personally, I think the only reason Barnes & Noble won’t be next is because they’ll get smart and focus on the nook platform, and you’ll see fewer books on their shelves, too (the last time I went to a Barnes & Noble, I saw, literally, 19 books on one entire shelving case. Not grouped together. Widely spaced. 19 books. Least effective use of shelf space I have ever seen). Books-A-Million? I don’t think I’ve ever even seen one. Honestly, I think we’ll see some regional chains spring up, like Powell’s and such, and some well established indie bookstores that aren’t being childish about Amazon will thrive, as well (I’m thinking of Book Soup, in Hollywood, the Strand, in New York. Places like that). In fact, here’s a great round-up considering how several independent bookstores are faring right about now (and which mentions the Strand).

Otherwise?

I think a lot more people will buy Kindles and iPads, and I think Amazon, Apple, and Barnes & Noble are going to become the giant corporate book stores of the digital book selling world. I think we’ll still find paper in places like Target and Walmart and Costco, but otherwise? I think books themselves are going to become more objects than media.

And I don’t think that’s a problem. Used to be you could only get a book by going to some major commerce Mecca, but now you can find everything online, digitally. I promise you don’t have to give up your books, not if you really don’t want to. Nobody’s going to ask you to.

The ways we purchase them might change, but to be candid, I don’t understand why people care about where they get their stories from, so long as they can get them. Isn’t a book bought from Amazon the same as one bought from Target? Are the words different?

Now, they’re not. It’s only going to become easier to get information and stories, and there will be plenty of places to buy them from.


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