I love bookshops. Over the years I’ve invested a lot of money in all sorts of books, most of them spontaneous buys due to a book catching my eye. To slip into a store and spend a couple of happy hours wandering down aisles crammed with books – I can’t think of a better shopping experience. (It’s the not having to try things on, I think. Those neon-lit cubicles that the department stores expect you to shed your clothes in to try on new ones … ugh!)
A book you judge by its covers – well, yes, we do, don’t we? I mean we don’t sort of read chapter seventeen to see if it fits, no, we’re attracted to it visually, flip it over and read the brief synopsis. 200 words maximum to sell it to us – or not. (Cover texts are AWFUL to write. I don’t know how many hours I’ve agonised over the sheer impossibility of reducing my novel to 183 words.) Okay, so I will scan the first few pages as well, and being a curious person who prefers to have her heroes and heroines intact by the end of the book, I generally read the end as well. I know, I know; CHEATING! So far this habit of mine has not detracted from my reading experience, and once I can relax into the certainty that X and Y will make it, I can live through their journey from beginning to end without chewing my nails into non-existence. (Have I mentioned I don’t like surprises?)
Since I’ve become serious about my writing, some of the lustre has gone out of reading. I went to a conference once where one of the speakers said that as a writer one must approach reading as part of the job, reading to improve one’s craft rather than for sheer enjoyment. In my case my writing efforts initially led me to avoid reading the kind of books I write (Agh! The kind of books I love) because I was so afraid of making comparisons, of feeling diminished. Nowadays I am a bit more relaxed, even if I DO compare (and learn). That speaker was right though; reading is no longer an uncomplicated pastime, now I get stuck on brilliant POVs and pitch-perfect dialogue, on breathtaking descriptive writing (A lot of analysis there, let me tell you. I am bowled over by good descriptive writing, a skill I want to hone into perfection). I also get very irritated by all the typos, the sloppy editing and – my pet hate – the ubiquitous anachronisms.
Anyway, back to my bookshops. Lately I have noticed a rather sad development in that the books on offer have become very mainstream. It used to be book stores carried the oddball books, little gems of writing that would never reach a larger audience but that deserved being given a chance. Yes, some bookshops still do, but most don’t. Instead it’s the bestsellers, the garish covers that we see in every supermarket, every airport store, that have taken over the shelves. Diversity is too dear, and the average reader is much happier with Dan Brown than with Paul Auster. And then, of course, there’s that other phenomena – the e-bookshops.
Today if you want a specific book chances are that you’ll buy it via your computer, not your closest bookshop. As a consequence, small bookshops no longer hold classics in any greater quantity or variety, as shoppers on the lookout for Jane Eyre are just as prone – no, wait; more prone – to buy it over the internet. They know what they want, it’s not as if they’re gnashing their teeth in their haste to start reading it, and so … Actually, even if you have no idea what book you want to buy, it’s probable you’ll start on the net. “Other buyers of X also bought Y” your internet bookshop helpfully tells you, and you think about it for a moment or two, click to Look Inside, and three minutes later you’ve made your purchase. So easy, so convenient.
But… STOP! What happened to browsing? To wandering through a bookshop and ending up in front of the SciFi shelves when you were planning on buying a book about conifers? (You’ve never read a SciFi book in your life, but something about the dust motes dancing in the sunlight lead you to this part of the shop, and there’s a bright green cover that has you intrigued.) And what about the experience as such? Bookshops have a special smell, of paper and ink, of wooden shelves, of smoky tweed and spilled tea. There’s a homey feeling to them, it’s quiet and restful, minutes of solace while you wander round with a smorgasbord of reading treats spread before you.
A real life bookshop is the boutique to the e-book store’s supermarket, somewhat dilapidated perhaps, not quite as efficient nor as diverse. (Not anymore) But it’s there, you can touch, smell, heft, you can load your arms with books and stagger off towards the cashier, and look, halfway there yet another book snags your attention and … shoot, the pile starts to slip but here comes the assistant to help you, and while you’re transporting all your potential purchases to the till she tells you that maybe you should read the latest by Alonso Cueto (she knows you’re into Latin American writers), and that frankly she doesn’t think you’ll like the novel that she finds at the bottom. No e-book store in the world can do that, can they?
Despite all of the above, I must admit to buying an increasing share of my books over the net. (Hypocrite, right?) Yes, I will still spend hours browsing, yes, of course I’ll buy a book or two from the local bookshop, but when I know what I want I’ll click my way to that magical place beginning with an A and ending with zon and do my purchasing. I even find new books there (“Others who bought X have also bought Y” is a compelling argument at times). But all the while I’m doing it, I feel like a traitor. Without my custom the real bookshops will go belly-up, and I really, really want them to still be around. Quaint and dusty, full of potential surprises and books I’ve never heard of, they are the storefront for a whole industry. So maybe I could agree on a compromise of sorts: one book on the internet = one book bought in real life. Would that be enough to keep the shops going, you think? And would you be willing to do the same?