There is a lot of confusing and conflicting information about the state of publishing. The book is dead. Digital media reading is on the rise. The e-book influence is bursting. Books are an important cultural artifact. Books are simply an outdated vessel (or debates thereof). Bookstores are a dying breed or, thankfully, more recently 41 new independent bookstores opened in 2012. I see articles every day about the state of the book or the state of print. Now I’ll be the first to admit that I read those articles on my phone. And then I sometimes post them on our Facebook page. Or I email them to interested parties. But the fact that people are continually talking about these issues means that nothing is yet resolved and frankly I’m not even convinced that we’re completely sure of the terms that we’re discussing.
First, the discussions raises all sorts of questions about definitions. What is a ‘book’? What do we mean by ‘print’ in the digital age? Then the debate expands further. To the traditional media — books, magazines, newspapers — have been added blogs, tweets, posts. Can we even talk about ‘writing’ any more? What language do we use to distinguish communication we ‘see’ from the communication we ‘hear’? Do we need new words or do we just appropriate the ones we already use: writing, printing, publishing. And with all that ‘visual communication’ out there, how do we even begin to figure out what we want to read?
Enter the bookstores. While driving home last week, I decided to stop at a few independent bookstores along the way. (Remember, I did acknowledge that this is a chronic phenomenon for bookstore employees.) I thoroughly enjoyed investigating the two shops, comparing their inventory to ours. What struck me the most is how curatorial the bookstore is. Sure many of their featured new releases were similar to ours. We all overlap in our Picks of the Year for 2012. But each store had its own unique personality, its own focus, which was quite distinct from ours. I picked up several books we don’t carry and noticed that some of the books we display prominently were nowhere to be found. For the record, I did buy a few things, but resisted buying books, as hard as it was.
Bookstores are curatorial. They are highly specialized mini exhibits of the wider publishing world. And they are purposeful. Bookstores are run by people; people weeding through millions of books to find the ones that deserve a place on our shelves. People who know our communities’ tastes and personalities. People making critical decisions about which book to recommend to which customer. There are no algorithms in our recommendations. We listen to what you want, what you’ve enjoyed in the past; we pay attention to how you respond to our recommendations, noting which books you hand back immediately and which ones you peruse for a little longer. We love it when you come back and ask for another recommendation because you enjoyed the last one.We can’t stock everything, but that’s probably a good thing, and what we can do is help personalize the search.
What is the future of the book? I don’t know, but I love reading the discussions. And the future of the bookstore? Well, I feel pretty positive, given how often a customer says, “Please don’t go anywhere”.