Last week we hosted prospective booksellers from across the United States and as far away as the Kingdom of Bahrain to discuss retailing in general, bookselling in particular, and the needs, desires and expectations of today’s reader. Together, we contemplated the future of a book culture and reading lifestyle.

There was consensus that a printed book differs from an e-book, and that the experience of shopping in an indie bookstore is vastly different than shopping online. What would we lose if all book browsing and purchasing in the future took place online? Will book lovers continue to value the sensory experience of a brick-and-mortar bookstore as well as the tangible aspect of holding a printed book?

In the midst of all the fascination with evolving technologies, more and more web sites, and the attention given to e-books, it appears that we’ve given short shrift to the physical experience of walking into a store and discovering a great read.

The artwork on a book’s cover, the quality of the paper and finish, the look of the type font, the added dimension of graphics and illustrations, and sometimes even that “new book smell” all complement the creative ideas inside. Open any one of Robert Sabuda’s pop-up masterpieces and you quickly realize the fine art of bookmaking – that experience can never be replicated on a gadget.

Browsing a bookstore means being surrounded by many ideas and the freedom to express them. Warm and inviting interiors, comfortable chairs, and antique tables invite us to be fully present with timeless stories. All too often, we’re bombarded by the thoughts firing away inside our brains, not to mention constant interruptions and everything and everyone clamoring for our time and attention. Spending time in a bookstore allows us to focus on just one thing at a time — a welcome retreat and escape.

Indie booksellers are known for hosting special events that invite us to think critically, ask questions of authors and other readers, linger to discuss a topic in depth. It’s where we exercise the gift of listening to one another, the ability to consider opposing views, and the magic that happens when ideas converge and evolve. There’s value for individuals and our culture as a whole to have these opportunities for face-to-face conversation and interaction.

We’ll leave for Europe next week (thanks to frequent flyer miles) and look forward to lingering in the cafes and bookshops, savoring the towns and villages that offer character, history, and a sense of place. These times away from the usual landscape allow me to come back to center — with reminders that urban design, architecture, and independent shops speak volumes about quality of life. Small is beautiful. Slow is good. And physically being there for the experience is best of all.