Thursday, February 24, 2011

Sunflower Seeds and the Printed Book

The announcement that Border's is filing for bankruptcy has shaken not only the industry, but this devoted reader. How is it possible that one of my all-out favorite places to hang out has had to trim its sails and might even close-up shop? I know that there were hints that it wasn't going to be smooth sailing when Barnes and Noble began to expand beyond the "express" market it had originally targeted by picking up the tail end of B. Dalton in the 90s. But to make matters worse, Borders really missed the boat on adapting to online sales, allowing Amazon to swallow this market up whole; a comparison of their websites says it all. University of Chicago Law Professors Gary Becker and Richard Posner's response to Border's fiscal issues, "Can Bookstores Survive?" designated the eReader and internet sales as the two major threats to the bookstore industry. Yet apparently eBook sales count for only 9 percent of the market to date. Accordingly, although   these elements pose a serious threat to the walk-in bookstore, they may not be insurmountable.

It all comes down to adaptability and change. Careers, families and institutions must constantly adjust themselves in order to survive. My own brief life has seen numerous, quite sharp, career about-faces; recreating what I do, what I offer, how I spend my time and not less significantly, how I make a living is something I've just come to accept. Although I envisioned myself a professor at a small New England college when I began my doctoral studies, people now come to me to help them navigate the admissions' material needed to apply to those very same hallowed institutions. Every now and then I ask myself how I got here. Since the answer to that query is too complex to answer I move on to the more significant realization that not only have I managed to stay afloat, but furthermore, am truly satisfied with what I do.

So if this middle aged woman (I can't believe I just wrote that) can weather any storm, how difficult is it for a major book conglomerate to do the same? After all, the tenability of institutions such as Borders depends entirely on their ability to properly react to the age of the Kindle, the Kobo, and the seriously frightening IPAD. They're going to have to not only reach people sitting at home on their computer (which they've done fairly successfully with online sales) but furthermore, keep their customers coming in to look around. One thing eReaders still can't do is satisfy the craving for perusing intrinsic to selecting that exciting next read. No matter how you cut it, there is simply no way to comfortably browse on an eReader. 

My own personal Borders on Rittenhouse Square moved a few blocks away to the business section of town about ten years ago and left me primarily a Barnes and Noble client. Convenience is a big deal when you choose your bookstore. I'm fairly sure that we all have a list of our lifetime favorites; mine include the Chestnut Hill Bookstore, Borders (Philadelphia and the flagship store in Ann Arbor), the Brown bookstore and W.H. Smith (Paris and Brussels). I have spent countless hours wandering around these hallowed institutions looking for a great book and every trip abroad is punctuated by at least one visit to the local bookstore. However, the struggle to maintain a walk-in audience these days is much tougher. As the facility offered by eReaders, especially in terms of shopping, and their attraction as gadgets alone is enough to kill off the whole retail industry, bookstores are going to have to start offering attractions that will hold our attention.   
Proudly claiming myself a devotee of the actual hand-held book, I put off the temptation to buy an eReader for the longest time. I caved in last September and since then have become a confirmed fan. I'm pretty much the target audience as I actually need to have a book with me at all times. I carpool quite a bit, spending several weekday evenings sitting in my car, or by a pool, or out in the sunshine, waiting for my children to finish up with their athletic pursuits. Additionally, I just cannot bear to wait! Just how wonderful is it to be able to whip out my Kindle (so much smaller than a book) and while away those idle moments! Just last week my daughter climbed out of the pool at the end of a practice and found me wiping tears off the screen. I had long before left the side of that chlorinated pool and was somewhere in a leaky raft in the Pacific with Louis Zamperini, fending off starvation and circling sharks (Laura Hillebrand Unbroken). "Is it already time to go home?"   
Maybe it's all about time. Maybe no one has the time to walk into a bookstore and actually browse. It's definitely easier, and more time conserving, to just hear about a book and buy it online or, with that eReader at your fingertips, order it digitally in a matter of seconds. Why bother getting into the car or even walking down the street? The serious issues confronting bookstores should be taken as a wakeup call; as a major challenge to the coming generation. Maybe the fact that people are flocking to the IPAD, less for its ability to serve as eBook and more for its fun factor, says something scary about where we're all headed. Even my husband, who faithfully read book after book (all my recommendations of course!) for years, barely gets through a handful now.

 The number of distractions in our lives grows yearly: there are simply so many other things to do—and with far less effort. The satisfaction of reading a book, which normally can't be done in a day, probably isn't immediate enough to be all that attractive. John Swansburg's article, "I hate my IPAD," includes a survey of reactions amongst IPAD users which clearly pinpoint its biggest problem: excess. Faced with an endless number of entertaining options, all in a neat one and a half pound package, why would anyone restrict themselves to actually using it as a book let alone turn it off and actually go to a bookstore! Here is the place to mention the third threat to bookstores suggested by Becker and Posner, and what I fing to be most horrifying: the diminished appetite for books.

It's all about slowing down. While in London last December I took my family to see the Sunflower Exhibition by Ai Weiwei (pronounced: I WayWay) at the Tate Modern Gallery. One end of the enormous Turbine Hall, the centerpiece of the former factory turned art museum, has been filled, edge to edge, with porcelain sunflowers. Each one of these sunflowers was individually crafted so that no two are alike; that's a big deal when one considers the fact that there is something in the range of 100 million sunflowers on the floor. Each sunflower is its own individual work of art, ostensibly identical to the others but actually unique. The project pays homage to the ancient Chinese craft of porcelain, the concept of "Made in China," and the experience of the individual within the masses. 

The first view afforded to the spectator is from the bridge above. Looking down one basically sees an unmodulated field of grey. If you didn't know what you were looking at you wouldn't be able to figure it out and indeed, many museum attendees glance left, down, and then turn around and move on. For those others, the ones who understand that there is something worth checking out and are willing to take the time to do so, the rewards are enormous. After descending the escalator to the ground floor an endless sea of variegated porcelain sunflowers spreads out before the viewer presenting endless variety within so much sameness. The seeds are absolutely convincingly realistic and each one demands its own viewing; the spectator who has chosen to stop and take a good look receives an awe-inspiring artistic experience. 

Isn't that what reading is all about? Taking the time to be entranced and lifted out of one's world and into another. With so many reasons not to open a book these days, or even to take the time to flip through one at a bookstore, these suspended moments of beauty are fewer and farther between. The answer for bookstores in the modern age is going to have to be a digital one. If they don't embrace the fascination with electronic gadgetry and figure out a way to incorporate its versatility and sex appeal within the atmosphere of the store itself, perhaps by improving their ability to make recommendations based on intimations of taste which Amazon does in a rudimentary fashion, they will have limited appeal to this next generation. And to this devoted reader, the loss of these repositories of printed treasures is an unfathomable one.


  1. I can't wait till the piece I wrote about visiting the book vault for Amherst College's overflow from the library goes online. A story you'll love.

    It was the Frigate bookstore.

    Even though I don't read enough books I love books & I love bookstores. Browsing is all about promise. That's another pleasure we shouldn't lose.

  2. . this world is all x all about adaptabilty. the one thing that we should teach our children is the unforgivable simplicity of adapting to constant change.