books, bookshops

Hope in a Time of Technology

It might be the optimist in me but I like to believe that businesses don’t fail, people do. I’ve heard this somewhere, and it rings true for me. I’m not pointing the finger whatsoever, but the fact remains that there are indie bookshops still actually opening and surviving regardless of the devastating effects of box stores and burgeoning technology. I want to believe that if I’m properly educated in how to run Biblio and how to differentiate it from other shops, and I act on that education and continue to learn, I won’t fail.

Almost every single day I read news of yet another independent bookshop closing. It’s both sad and frustrating because these shops have been significant in their community, most of them for a very long time. David Mirvish Books, one of Canada’s oldest bookshops and possibly the most most popular visual arts, photography, and design bookstore closed almost a year ago after 34 years of operation, opting instead, like many others, to sell their inventory online (Miller, Toronto Star). The very popular Pages in Toronto closed its doors after 30 years this past August due to impossible rent increases (Levack, Toronto Notes). A couple of weeks ago I saw that Duthie Books in Vancouver had written a rather bitter- yet devastated-sounding announcement that they are closing their last shop after 53 “(mostly) happy” years, due to competition. And today I read that Prime Crime Mystery Bookstore in Ottawa, an award-winning specialty shop in the Glebe, is closing its doors in March.

The shops are closing for many reasons: the economy, the box-store competition, the rising popularity of the ebook and ereaders, it’s just time to retire and no one has offered to buy, rent is increasing beyond affordability, etc. They’re all very real and very valid reasons to close up shop. But something keeps telling me that if I have a great business plan in place, one that is well-advised, takes into account what works, and considers the future, but one that is also constantly reviewed and adjusted if necessary based on keeping abreast of the industry, and if I educate myself well enough and keep learning and participating in the literary community, and if I don’t give up and let the media coverage get to me, I can make a go of it.

I’m willing to take that risk because I hate the alternative. I don’t want to contribute to the bookshop “depression” by not opening Biblio out of fear of failure. This might sound counter to what I just wrote about staying abreast of the industry and growing with it, but I’m also hoping that I can stand for what I believe in—that is, the value of a “real” book—and still be successful.

Penguin clothbound classics. Photo: Anthropologie.com

I can’t help but refuse to buy into the techno hype surrounding the tiresome ebooks and ereaders. I know there are others like me for whom the lure of saving space and even money falls short. I’m certain I’m not the only person who derives great pleasure from the fragrance of ink and paper, the art of a beautifully bound volume or set, the warmth of a book as opposed to the coldness of technology. If I were an author, I’d want to hold that tangible novel in my hands, fan its lovely deckle-edged pages, and breathe in the fragrance of a dream come true. I’d want to sign pages to readers with a lovely pen; I’d want to see that book on my shelf and the shelves of others. Stephen King is apparently some kind of huge proponent of ebooks, but after writing so many books he can’t even remember having written half of them, what’s another newly bound novel?

The thought of a group of book club members sitting in a cozy circle discussing Geraldine Brooks’s People of the Book while clutching their Kindles or iPads seems ridiculous to me, and somewhat sad. There’s something lost there. But that’s because when I discuss books I like to be able to have access to that book in every possible way. I love to run my hands over a  matte or cloth cover, to flip through the pages, to weigh a novel’s heaviness in my hand. The ereaders are just no match for the real thing.

Perhaps people like me are dismissed as behind the times, sentimentalist, romantic. So what if we are? We’re also lovers of a certain art and history; we appreciate the creative process that goes into making a book. And we value a different sort of practicality. I think of books as more accessible than technology, less discriminating, and just easier for people of all ages. We booklovers want something we can trust—and often readily own.

I just think technology can be unreliable, no matter how well it’s engineered. Sure, it’s convenient in many ways. But there has been many a time when I’ve wanted to toss this laptop out the window even though it’s only a year old and a good one, and countless occasions at work I’ve wasted time waiting for a program to reload after a crash while a customer stands impatiently before me.

Amazon Kindle. Just not the same. Photo: slashgear.com

Technology is fallible. Its growth rate is exponential and you have to keep up or it becomes useless. It’s expensive. It’s limited. There will be glitches. You might be in the middle of a terrific chapter when your battery runs out and you’re nowhere near a charger, or perhaps you’re a writer giving a reading and suddenly your ereader won’t load your book. I mean, what if? Then how happy will you be about this hand-held piece of convenience when you could have simply turned the page or flipped to where your Post-it Note indicated? Really. How inconvenient is a book if you only need one at a time?

Besides, over the next twenty years or so, it’s the baby boomers who will be doing most of the buying still anyway, so regardless of how obsessed younger generations may be with technology, books will still be purchased. And people will still enjoy the sensory and tactile experience of shopping in a store rather than online. They’ll also frequent bookshops for all the other things they offer, for that tangible sense of a literary community. I don’t believe that “normal” books and indie bookshops will die out altogether. People will still want them. Thus, someone has to provide them. One of those someones will be me.

But for those who need something more convincing than sentimentalism and romantic notions, read Margaret Atwood’s Three Reasons to Keep Paper Books, and More on Keeping Paper Books. She argues better than I do (and writes better, too). More importantly, she rationally presents her points, and then, like a good debater, backs them up with credible sources. The point we both make is, there is value to the traditionally made books. And I say that its up to those of us who feel passionate about that to keep buying, selling, and reading them.

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6 Comments to “Hope in a Time of Technology”

  1. I usually have zero confidence in anything I do, so it’s super weird that I don’t even think of the risk factor; or at least, I dismiss it. I just feel so sure that this will work if I can make it happen!

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