Wednesday, June 15, 2011

The Last Generation of Bookstores

Bookstores are dying. Libraries are dying right along with them.

We all know why.

The material text had an admirable run. For six hundred years, beginning with the invention of moveable type printing in the West, books have been the ultimate repository and intellectual medium of man's knowledge and communication on every subject under the sun. They stayed around so long that we came to think of them as the permanent template of our culture.

But all that has changed. Bookstores around the country--around the world--are becoming increasingly irrelevant. It's true--or was, until recently--that there were more books manufactured each year.

What is a book? Without its physical manifestation, as a gathering of folded sheets of processed cellulose, does it even really exist?

We think of writing and speaking as fugitive phenomena, until being committed to the more permanent expression of a book. But we now know that books aren't the ultimate end-game of our culture--the more efficient, and probably more ephemeral realization--isn't the book, but electronic data storage. Accessing that data will become--is already becoming--the next big thing in the technological advance in the Age of Information.

We'd like to think that books will continually be produced for those of us who still enjoy them, either as convenient alternatives to computer projection screens, or as physical objects, familiar and convenient, like newspapers and magazines, which are also soon to become history.

Some people are pronouncing these doom-sayings as bogus, but they know in their hearts that books' days are numbered. The only question is what part of the publishing industry will survive, and what will support it?

Like film emulsions and light sensitive print paper in photography, now being rendered obsolete by digital imaging and printing, books will soon become harder and harder to find. And as they become scarcer, fewer and fewer people will regard them as essential and practical. Why would anyone pay $35 for a physical book, when they could rent an electronic version of it for half that price, and never have to worry about disposing of the object afterwards? Even if--as seems inevitable--electronic media ends up costing customers more to access electronic versions than it would have to obtain a physical book--the same way CABLE now costs people much more than old-fashioned commercial television once did--it's doubtful that people will ever "go back" to books. Books are heavy, perishable, and they nearly always decline in value immediately upon purchase, the same way cars and clothes do. Books are indeed luxuries in that sense: A car is a necessity in our culture. And clothes certainly are. Fashions may change, but people still have to get around, and wear clothing.

Could anyone have predicted the demise of print media, even 30 years ago? Who would have believed it?

For those of us who still maintain some affection for the old book culture, all this is very unsettling. The record of six centuries of thought and imagination and research is still with us. It's contained in the books which survive the ravages of time. But those will undoubtedly be reproduced in some expedient form in the future, just as we did in the past. The only question is whether or not these expedient technologies will be as durable as the original sources they were intended to supplant. Presently, all electronic technologies are proprietary, and commoditized. Books are commodities, but they stubbornly outlive the ephemeral use of their initial value as commodity transmitters. But proprietary software programs, and the hard drives that run them, will undoubtedly undergo rapid transformations in future. What will occur if we "replace" the old material texts with these new soft versions, only to see the later incarnations being rapidly made unusable, closed to access forever.

It seems likely that some newer technology, incorporating the content of the material book technology, without being trapped in a decaying form (like software files) will come along eventually. What will it look like? Will the Computer Age end up being a blip on the graph of time, eventually giving way to a consolidated system of exchange, as durable as rocks?

As I've said before, man falls upon the sword of his own vanity, in seeking to create a lasting vestige of his intentions. Matter can't hold the evidence of our having lived. Even stones eventually crumble. That was the point of Wells's Time Machine. All is fleeting. Given enough time, and pressure, the only permanence is change. Even our bodies, and our minds, are but temporary expressions of a genetic code whose formula and elaborations are undergoing constant, if incremental, change. People, like books, are temporary vessels.


J said...

at least 90% of Barnes and IgNoble's book-product should go up in flames anyway. Seriously the book-mart hustlers were crap as businessmen anyway--eg, like in Valley they put up all these massive bookstores in expensive areas and after 2-3 years the book and coffee biz died down, and the book-walmarts couldn't afford the rent. Then the mgmt started crying...bookstores are dying!! Not really. There are still book-nooks (a few), except for small quaint joints who went out of business because of the Book-Walmarts, and now, they're going out of business too (mainly because of online sales, kindle, Crapple, etc). Typical pathetic planning on the part of mgmt. --sad for the bookstore employees, as well.

Im for keeping a few nice old books, yet in general...approve of the digital age eliminating the musty libraries and bookmarts. In a sense ..cyberia has a democratic potential, and access to books/texts/research a big part of that (notwithstanding the corporate predators

Kirby Olson said...

I still prefer books. I think with the Unabomber that the electrical grid will collapse at some point.

Curtis Faville said...


I'm not sure whether or not you're just posing as the devil's advocate, here, or pretending to be cranky.

If you like books, then you'll probably miss them when they're no longer generally available on the market. Collectibles and antiques will always be with us--they seem a part of human culture, since the Renaissance--our commodity fetish again--but I'd like to go on to the next life believing that what we've inherited from history won't be lost out of carelessness and ambition.

In the long run, the sun will explode and the earth will melt, and none of it will matter. But in terms of human time, we think, within the microcosm of that bracket, that what we do and think to record matters. That's the whole humanist package in a nutshell.

Poetry Writing for Dummies. That's one they can throw into the bonfire someday.

J said...

You didn't read what I wrote, CF. Liking books does not entail liking B & N, Borders, Starclucks, Amazon, Kindle, Crapple, etc. does it CF? Non sequitur again. And I doubt that Amazon online will be shutting anytime soon. The online market's quite good for obscure books at a bargain rates anyway--certainly compared to B & N. Jim Thompson klassics--After dark my sweet-- for a buck or two.

There were some cool small bookjoints in the Valley, beloved by many, which the Book MegaMarts promptly put out of business in late 90s.

Via the Net you can download Ted Kaczynski's rugged manifesto as well . No need to head to B & N and deal with guppies and fat and/or overripe divorcees (well, maybe once a month).

Ah yeah burning most poetry works. Schackaspeare or Edna St. Kirby Millay, up in smoke.

Curtis Faville said...

If you accuse me of not reading what you wrote, again, I'll just stop reading your comments altogether.

Don't put words into my mouth.

Did I claim that you "liked" the big box book retailers? Why would I assume that, anyway. And why would it matter?

I don't like your passive aggressive behavior of saying people don't understand you.

Just say what you mean and let it lie.

Your contempt for so many things becomes tiresome.

I don't happen to like Millay much myself, but I certainly wouldn't commit her to the flames.

Dissing everything is really tiresome, after a while. I like a good curmudgeonly comment as well as anyone, but you're monotonous.

Say something cheerful. It wouldn't kill you.

jh said...

it's an aspect of technoblabber world i do not like and i suppose pound and cid corman may have enough staying power to encourage the continued making of books even now it's about as easy as touching a button

books are my weakness i strive to find good books i go miles to find one i know about hopefully a bunch i can hold and read and smell and trade...the book store is much older than the public library

will it end i don't know i hope not i hope people will be lazy enough to make books and publish books and trade books you have to be lazy and i think people are getting less and less lazy and that is a pity you have to be very patient to realize what went in to writing and publishing a book it's a big undertaking

maybe we need to institute a project to ensure that every sizeable town has a manual type-set printer and people must be beholden to keeping the tradition alive

maybe they need to teach book appreciation in schools train people to have aesthetic experiences around books...they sort of bend over backwards to emphasize books in our library but they're cutting back library hours this summer to a trifle and now instead of just a simple local catalogue everything has bigger comemrcial access you can buy a book as easy as you can check it out and all on the same basic page on the computaha

when books are obsolete only bookthieves will have books and i for one will stop at nothing i will break into peoples houses to get their precious books i will raid collections i will set traps and weave intrigue and focus in on the really great valuable books just to have them i will decide that they are far more important than paintings or films and i will commence a worldwide clandestine organization of bookthieves then then then it will get exciting again

when books are obsolete there really will be a thing called privileged knowledge and the book readers will have it and everyone else will not

if any of you guys want to enter into blackmarket arrangements for books just let me know

i'll do raids on old monastery libraries...yeah ....really great stuff in there

we'd have to be real secret about this
nobody can know
i mean it's getting that serious

cheer up j
life is a milkshake
and then you burp


Curtis Faville said...


Sort of like the revolt of the book lovers.

Did you hear about those guys who became true bibliomaniacs, and led a life of intense thievery to support their habit? The famous one, about whom a long article was published in Harper's, lived, I think in Illinois. He was like Houdini, he would sneak into libraries during the day, hide somewhere inside, then break out during the night with a stash of treasures. He was eventually caught.

Then there was a guy out here in California. He was more brazen, he would order books without paying for them, have them delivered to non-addresses, and then disappear. They caught him too.

J said...

I don't think your critical reading skills are that well-developed, CF, or you're just not paying attention. That's part of it. Note that I wrote that the Net may in some sense be advancing democracy in terms of providing more access to written material, classics, history, research, science, etc.--not just commentaries on Aquinas or victorian potboilers. And I do purchase books online via Amazon occasionally. So that's not merely cynical.

The comment concerned the piss-poor business practices of the bookmarts, and corporate booksellers (and publishers). B & N collapsing doesn't bother me so much, but I do know some employees laid off due to bookmarts closing. Due to corporate predation by the likes of B & N, Amazon, Borders, starbucks,etc small community bookstores were put out of business, and then a few years later, the bookstore employees were screwed as well.

(Why, even good papists might perceive something sinister at work there though few have attacked corporate exploitation in any meaningful fashion--welll JP II did at times. But he's mostly been forgotten).

Curtis Faville said...


I've addressed this topic before, here:

--about Powell's Books in Portland, Oregon.

The decline of books as commodities did not occur as a result of "poor business practices" by booksellers. Disequilibriums in the publishing trade, the wholesale and retail book trades, are separate issues. The whole structure of the filtering and production of text for material expression is in decline, because of software data storage and accress. That's a fact.

Is it to be mourned? Take your choice.

As the writer of the essay, I acknowledge my biases, but try to be neutral with respect to its ultimate consequences. I'm taking sides, but I know I can't change history. These forces are larger than we are. For a while, computer companies were being "blamed" for the decline of the book. The same things happened in the music industry; people were "stealing" music. But the technology to reproduce original settings of text and sound has progressed relentlessly forward. It was obvious, at least as recently as 15 years ago, that capital couldn't control this trend. Now it's out of the corral, all bets are off. People used to worry about where to put the growing mass of book files. They thought microfilm might help. Now they're worried that the books will be destroyed, and nothing to show for it. That's a much, much bigger question than whether or not you like Barnes & Noble stores.

The new issue is control of content, copyrights, etc. How will that play out?

J said...

The archiving question's different, and actually software/digital archives are probably a good thing. Microfiche can't even compare to digital storage. So put Moby Dick, or thoughs of Oppenheimer, or your beloved "Best of Duns Scotus" on a zip drive, and that'll last a lifetime.

Re the actual text, like hard copy?? Oh well. Yes, perhaps--a digital copy of Macbeth is not a handsome leather bound edition of Riverside Shakespeare like the millionaires' kids use at Yale, etc--but as I indicated--that's not altogether to be lamented. Perhaps it irks the hipsters who collect little nasty poetry books--not the public too much. Then scan it, and use some good paper, laser print it, and you can Howl forevah, Sir F.

Anyway the demise of books-- ie hard-copy, new, glossy, coffee table sort--WAS due in large part to bad decisions by corporate management of B n N. Have you walked through the football field-sized B n N's ? Quite a few in the valley. Perhaps in Bay area. The execs run their stats and they know-- given big properties in nice areas--they won't be able to turn a profit much less pay the staff unless the demand stays steady, or grows, and ..the demand decreased. Some even admitted it was a hustle more or less. So they cut and run once the book and coffee boomtown ended-- producing ...more empty, ugly storefronts--in brief, not to say the small bookstores they put out of business, and the employees they f**ked.

Gary B. Fitzgerald said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Conrad DiDiodato said...


check out Ted Striphas, a very intresting author with a lot to say about this topic.

J said...

The literary-jerk offs upset about the loss of hard copy text also overlook the fact that digitalization of text/info./research is "green" in a sense--no need for harvesting all the trees for the wood pulp used for paper/printing (ie, newsprint for the daily jewspaper). There are other types of paper, but wood-paper manufacturing does have an impact on environ.

Now, there may be other issues--but on the whole digital archiving seems like a ...positive, and even democratic phenomenon, especially via removable media (ie, visavis a few zip drives, and you can download most of the Bancroft). The rare books and folios beloved by elite scholars at private unis--ultimately available to all, or to virtually all.

Curtis Faville said...


I think there is general agreement in the literary community--not to speak of those in across the spectrum of text-dependent technicians--that the archiving of documents and data is a useful alternative--in the context of what you're suggesting about the consumption or resources, and the convenience of not maintaining tons of reference material (much of it dry, "empty" stuff). I certainly wouldn't refer to such people as "literary jerk-offs," however.

The concern is that the new repositories may not be permanent, or may be ephemeral proprietary files that simply obsolesce. As with the old "micro-film" scandal (they're self-destructing just like the acid-rich printing paper stocks of the early 20th Century--the software records may be even more subject to decay. There's nothing selfish or impractical about wanting to preserve the knowledge and language of earlier times. Right this moment, everyone's happy to have this new fund of availability, but already we're beginning to see some of the cracks. Printing fonts, for instance, offered even as recently as ten years ago, are now becoming defunct, or extinct. What happens to texts that later software isn't programmed to "read"? The html and PDF technologies hardly are expected to be "permanent"--even though we tend to regard them, unconsciously, as being so.

People don't play 78 or 45 or 33 1/3 records any more, and lots of those old discs are becoming priceless (check e.Bay) because they don't exist, in many cases, in any other form. A day may come when there are no turntables. Sound is not the same as text: What happens it the Alexandria Library burns down, and all we have are old "data files" that no machine can "read" anymore? These fears may be a little chicken-little-ish, but they're genuine concerns--not the evidence of some pathetic "jerk-offs".

J said...

What happens it the Alexandria Library burns down, and all we have are old "data files" that no machine can "read" anymore

that's due to incompatibility of programs--having to do with proprietor-ship, ie, corporate swine-- not due to mere fonts. Ie, the cheap Works (which comes with most PCs off the shelf) or the Apple whatever (Claris, a few years back) will not read Word, because Billy Gates want people to buy the Word program (and McJobs wants you to buy crapples). But usually the raw text files are compatible. So save docs in a few formats--(tho again, when you have hard copy, you can scan, and have that).

Curtis Faville said...


"So save docs in a few formats--(tho again, when you have hard copy, you can scan, and have that)."

My point exactly. By "saving hard copy" you prove the point. Corporate executives can't be expected to keep the needs of society's heritage and record foremost. They're interested in profits. Which is exactly what's motivating Google to try to circumvent copyright law and make everything "available" online.

Leaving posterity in the hands of entrepreneurs is a very bad idea, as you say.

J said...

Re dissing Google-Co--one of the sleaziest bunko rackets ever to go down in US history-- I concur. That's copyright, isn't it? Not really about the archiving. They bought the rights to the books from the authors, did they not (and the exec swine like Schmidt repeat that ad nauseum). And you can barely read the Google books anyway--it's a teaser to get you to buy the sh*t. Actually since you asked, Im also against copyright laws, at least for 50 years. Make it 25 or so. And re the big name or academic publishers, scan 'em, and post on line. No sweat off my b*lls. (that's already happening-- I won't link to the pirated books, since you seem like a law-abiding type)