I spent a few hours yesterday in a Bookstore and it made me very sad.
Now, I love books, and by extension Bookstores and Libraries. The women I have loved in my life have been bibliophiles and the walls of my home are adorned with packed bookshelves.
As a child I would visit the Davis Kidd Bookstore in Nashville and spend half a day or more wondering up and down the lies of it’s two stories completely fascinated by the wealth of information they contained. It was that ideal of “information” that most attached me to Bookstores and Libraries. Growing up in the days before the internet when I wanted to know something about a topic the only places I could go would be bookstores and libraries. Knowledge existed in those places, and the feeling of conveyance of that knowledge is forever associated in my mind with the warm quite ambiance of those places.
But the world has changed. Now all of that information I once craved from the bookstore and the library is online and can be accessed with the iPhone in my pocket.
What made be sad as I browsed the books yesterday was the knowledge that bookstores are no longer relevant. The retail model as we know it is dead. It may carry on for another ten years out of inertia, but the fundamental ideal of walking into a large store and comparing three to five similar products, picking one, and buying a couple of impulse items on the way out is over. For the bookstore, it is doubly damned, because not only is its basic retail model irrelevant, but the items which it sells are also irrelevant.
For the last 500 years, books have come to symbolize knowledge and information. Cultures burned books they did to agree with while rebels hid and distributed copies of the same to fight back. The Bible, The Little Red Book, Catcher in the Rye, Stranger in a Strange Land, paradigm Kampf, are all books that have been extolled and demonized, but it wasn’t the paper, ink, and glue that people loved and hated, it was the information and ideals.
What is a Book, a Magazine, a Music CD, or a Video DVD? These are all information in a physical wrapper. It is this physical wrapper that has become irrelevant, not the information. Today we posses the ability to create, distribute, store, and consume in a digital form almost everything a bookstore sells in physical form.
What we pay for now in a book is more for the physical. It’s paying for the ink, the paper, the glue, the labor to print the book, the time and fuel to transport the book. We also pay the publisher who markets the book. At some point a small amount of what we pay trickles down to the author who spent the time and expertise to assemble the information and present it.
The notion of a “book” does not does not die with the physical. There will always be a need for information creators, cultivators, and assemblers. They will always need to arrange this information in a form that is logical with a defined path from start to finnish. Maybe in a hundred years we will call these information assemblies “books” as a polite nod to our past.
I miss the warm feeling of getting my information for a bookstore. However I understand that the need for my warm feeling should not stand in the way of the progress. This ability we have now to separate information from physical bonds is the single most important event in human history to date. While there is comfort and perhaps even some temporary convenance in the old method, we should not let that stand in the way of the paradigm shift.
In the end yesterday, I did enjoy my time in the bookstore despite my sadness. I browsed around, got “sticker shock” from the prices, and giggled at the antiquity of it all. I did buy something yesterday, but I have to admit, it felt like an act of charity.