Each day offers an opportunity to learn something new, especially when you open a page of a book. Last night, I read an insight about architecture that sparked thought about the future of bookstores.

What do you find in a bookstore? Comfort, ideas, stories to connect us with others.

What do you find in a bookstore? Comfort, ideas, stories to connect us with others.

Stephen Mouzon has often been quoted about the mindfulness of architecture and urban design in Traditional Neighborhood Developments (TNDs). Since Mark and I moved to a TND on Amelia Island twelve years ago and now I serve as president of the neighborhood association board, I’ve loved learning about what makes us feel safe and secure and at home. “Contentment” has been a big word for me as I age, and what I value even more as the years go by is beauty, the comforts of home, and holding a book in my hands while the words enrich the moments.

Mouzon, who after years of studying neighborhoods and homes people love, has developed the leading guide to traditional home design, Traditional Construction Patterns: Design & Detail Rules of Thumb. While the last fifty years of home construction has led to McMansions, sprawl, and “hyper” buildings that have been over-designed, Mouzon helps us see how fascination with the machine became the “expression of our age.” Our obsession with technology still seems to cloud our basic human needs … and still does.

So, as BookExpo America kicks off this week in New York, I am reminded with the first time e-readers hit the trade show and how the IT professionals claimed to know the future of the book was to be purely electronic. For the last decade, many of us questioned the prediction and now, it turns out that the bookstore of the future feels a lot like the comforts of bookstores through time. While things in the back room may operate a little differently, life in the store is still thought-filled, personal, and human scale.

While we’ve all gotten used to finding (and buying) things on the web and reading online, there’s a lingering human need for people, places, and material objects in our lives that are on a tangible, knowable, and comfortable human level.

That corporate behemoth, Amazon.com, is out with yet another gadget, trying to preserve their market share with a “me too” tablet. Their strategy? Just as they’ve done before, sell it as a loss leader and make money in other ways until they can dominate the market — and then raise prices. In both the short and long-term, there’s a high cost to cheap.

In a society where attention deficit disorder is rapidly becoming the norm, imagine how pop-up ads will contribute to the distractions. To sell below your own cost of materials and overhead, money has to come from somewhere; when you can promise lots of eye-balls, advertisers will be willing to pay. The high cost of cheap is that we sacrifice our quiet reading space.

And imagine the value of data-mining private information about individuals. When a corporation can collect information about what we buy, what we read, how and what we research, and then sells that data to others, our loss of privacy becomes their financial gain. So, the high cost of cheap is giving away intimate details about our lives to people we don’t even know.

From a perspective inside the book industry, we see that the more power Amazon.com holds, the more it will attempt to dictate to publishers everything from price to content of the literature published. The high cost of cheap now extends to one company having a disproportionate amount of power. In other industries, this has resulted in a loss of jobs, choice, and quality.

With companies specializing in technology, more flexibility (not less!) is the goal. When customers are used to being able to navigate and buy freely, there are limitations and inconveniences to exercise that freedom. The high cost of cheap means supporting a corporation that wants to limit navigation for its own advantage.

Perhaps most importantly, it’s hard to believe that after a summer of its fervent opposition to paying state sales taxes (as even the smallest retailers manage to do), this corporate goliath would imagine it to be unscathed. The high cost of cheap is rewarding bad corporate behavior.

Ultimately, our decisions about what we buy and what companies we support is a reflection of our own values — and when, in the long run, cheap becomes too costly.

Our Friends of the Library Spring Book Sale begins tomorrow. Throughout the year, our little band of volunteers gather to accept donations, sort books, and prepare to fill a gymnasium. Like they do in so many communities, Friends of the Library contributes thousands of dollars to the library budget each year, so everyone wins. The community recycles books and the library receives funds for new materials.

The books that surround us remind us of who we are and what we value.

Seeing the thousands of books available for sale got me thinking about avid readers. With all we’ve gained through our reading, we often don’t see the world in black and white; instead, we realize that life – in all its variety – is far more nuanced. That’s why I’m surprised when I hear smart, educated people wonder out loud whether bookstores and libraries will exist in an age of internet and e-readers. Why wouldn’t both continue to play important roles in our lives? Sure, we want access to the world of information, but we seek solitude and connection too. We need guidance to find those well-written stories and research done with integrity.

If everything resides on a computer or a gadget, what happens when their life spans become obsolete? When the next great innovation renders current technology useless? Remember the 8-track tape and VHS video? I don’t want my books trapped in a microchip that ends up in some trash heap. My books are more important to me than that. Even if I only look at a spine on a bookshelf every once in a while, the fact that it is a part of me and a part of my home matters to me. I’d like to think that the stories I’ve read, the places I’ve traveled through the pages of a book cannot be zapped with one click. Yet I feel fine about closing a file on my computer when I’m done with my work.

So I’ll use technology and I’ll still want printed books in my life and in my home. For people I care about, I’ll continue to buy books because they are such thoughtful, caring gifts. They remind us to slow down, not absorb everything in bits and bytes. They remind us of who we are and what we value. And they remind us to be still, find comfort in silence, learn something new, listen to another voice.

Tomorrow I’ll be at the Friends of the Library spring book sale where it will be evident that books are a part of our material culture. Glancing across the gym with books arranged on tables, I’ll have occasion to remember the greater freedoms of speech, to read, to question, to grow. And I’ll likely find a book or two to add to my collection at home.

 

Hamlet likely wasn’t the first to ponder matters of life and death, but the question he poses in his famous soliloquy, “To be or not to be,” remains as relevant today as ever before – especially for independent booksellers. Of course, the question needs to be updated a bit, since it’s now “To ‘e’ or not to ‘e’,” as booksellers define their stance when it comes to e-books.

Just as we’ve seen a number of booksellers celebrate the launch of Google Editions – giving them the opportunity to offer e-books to their customers and make a bit of money doing so – we’ve also heard from several others who are adamant in their refusal to join the fray. We thought that it might be beneficial for indie booksellers to look at both sides of the current debate before they decide on an approach that will work best for them and for their customers.

Everywhere you look, there seems to be yet another pundit predicting the demise of the printed book or the brick-and-mortar bookstore. After all, no one can dispute that the rapid acceleration of technology has contributed to obsolescence – just think of cassette and VCR tapes, vinyl records and turntables. There will always be a segment of the population enthralled with the newest innovation.

Some perspective here might be valuable. Industry figures tell us that publishing is a $12+ billion a year business, with e-books accounting for 3-5% of that figure; some are predicting that e-books will continue to grow in popularity, and account for 10% of the market within the next few years. A closer look at the “digital reading revolution” shows that Amazon and Kindle is the dominant market force, with Barnes & Noble and their Nook e-reader and Apple’s I-Pad distant runners-up; between them, they account for at least 80-90% of the market.

Thanks to Google Editions and the American Booksellers Association’s efforts to provide their members with competitive web-based technology, indie booksellers can now tout as an advantage that e-books they can sell can be read on just about any device except a Kindle. But to whom should this message be aimed? Customers who don’t yet own a reading device of any kind but are expected to? After all, the argument goes, readers are readers, and want to be able to read whatever, wherever, and whenever they please.

It’s understandable that booksellers desire to remain “relevant,” whatever that means. We wonder, though, how this fascination with technology may be causing too many to stray too far from the core business practices that contributed to their success in the first place. Almost all the indie booksellers that we know are passionate about books, and love nothing more than to talk up a great read. Passion and knowledge are but two of the characteristics that define them, along with character, personality, and community – the cornerstones of the American Booksellers Association’s former BookSense program.

In our work with prospective booksellers, we want them to be clear about what it takes to compete in today’s retail environment, and what they should claim as a competitive advantage. We still believe that it all comes down to the customer experience, from their perception of the physical surroundings the moment they enter the store, to their face-to-face interaction with a bookseller, to how they feel as they’re ready to leave the bookshop.

There’s no question that our lives will continue to be impacted by technology, but if we are guided by our core beliefs and a sense of how we treat others and want to be treated by them in return, there will always be an important place for independent bookstores to anchor our communities. Let’s remember to embrace the words of Mark Twain, “Rumors of my death have been greatly exaggerated.”