Saturday, December 5, 2015

Leaving empty-handed

I dropped Elaine at her Nutcracker and drove through an end-of-Casablanca fog to browse in a chain bookstore, the one I (perversely) call Barnes and Nobles. No Mrs. Dalloway . No William Maxwell. No gaps to suggest that they’d recently left the shelves. No Robert Walser’s Looking at Pictures . That one I just wanted to see in a store.

If the book scene is sad, the music scene is sadder still. No Ellington. No Miles Smiles — an arbitrary absence, I admit. (There were just two Miles Davis CDs.) No Concert by the Sea . That one, too, I just wanted to see in a store.

It’s sad when leaving a bookstore empty-handed becomes routine.

comments: 2

Chris said...

I worked for about 25 years in bookstores, mostly in indies but also in a few small chains that are long gone. The last store I worked in closed its doors in 2000.

The big chains went through a superstore phase where they thought they could keep a vast stock of midlist and backlist titles on hand in hundreds of stores across the country, many of them in areas that weren't traditional markets for large bookstores. Even at the time a lot of academic publishers were made nervous by this, because they knew that they were going to be printing a lot of extra copies that were going to sit on a shelf in a B&N or a Borders and then get returned for credit. Online discounting (which by the way, isn't allowed in some countries, like France, which as a result have a much stronger bookstore industry) has really made it impossible to keep low-turnover titles on hand (and soaring real estate prices are a big issue). B&N is now trying to expand their sidelines, which are less sensitive to online discounting. It's pretty grim for traditional browsers like us.

There's an article in the Times today or yesterday that talks about the importance of having books physically present in the home. Much of what it says in the article could be equally well said of bookstores:

"Poking through physical artifacts, as I did with those Beatles records, is archival and curatorial; it forces you to examine each object slowly, perhaps sample it and come across a serendipitous discovery.

"Scrolling through file names on a device, on the other hand, is what we do all day long, often mindlessly, in our quest to find whatever it is we’re already looking for as rapidly as possible. To see 'The Beatles' in a list of hundreds of artists in an iTunes database is not nearly as arresting as holding the album cover for 'Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.'"

Luckily there are still a few great bookstores (and used bookstores) around.

Michael Leddy said...

Amen to that article in the Times . I sent it to my children earlier today.

Our Barnes & Noble, like Borders before it, has given over more and more space to games and toys — and to empty space, with fewer shelves in the book area. The CD racks are pretty bare. It occurs to me that an enterprising though risky effort might be to stock fifty important jazz recordings, fifty important classical recordings, all in big display racks, all selling for $13.98 or some such magical price. I could imagine such an effort leading to return visits and continued purchases. Then again, maybe not. But with jazz and classical music, listeners still want the disc, or at least many do. The saddest thing is that with fewer books and CDs, there’s less and less reason to visit a store instead of ordering from you-know-where.