Why Bookstores Might Be the Enemy

Here’s an interesting tidbit I’ve discovered about myself: while I love libraries, I don’t like bookstores. And yet I should adore bookstores, since my professional life is based on reading (I’m an English professor) and since I read incessantly. In fact, one of my favorite cocktail party questions is this: If you had to choose between never writing another word or never reading another book, which would you choose? Most of my friends choose the former: for them, writing is of paramount importance. They hesitate a bit when making their choice, it’s true. But for me, there is no hesitation, because there is no choice: it’s far more important for me to read than to write.

And so I should love bookstores; after all, when I’m in one, I’m surrounded by what I love. But that’s not the case. The truth is, I never leave bookstores filled with satisfaction and pleasure, even when I buy an armload of much-desired books. It’s only recently dawned on me, in fact, that I must not really like bookstores at all, because I often leave them feeling depressed and anxious. Once I realized this, however, it didn’t take me long to figure out why.

Let me stop for a moment and explain that I do in fact love libraries. I can sniff them out in a town I’ve never been before and locate them (despite the fact that I have a deplorable sense of direction) with as much ease as a Ring-wraith sniffs out Frodo when he’s carrying the Ring. And once inside a library, I especially love checking out old, forlorn copies of books that no one reads anymore.

So what is the difference between libraries and bookstores?

It’s an easy question: the answer is money. Libraries need money to run, of course, but they don’t make money off the books they lend. That’s why I never mind paying late fees–and I’ve had some whoppers–to libraries for the books I’ve checked out. On the other hand, bookstores make money off of books; they turn books into commodities. For me, that’s an ugly process, one that I abhor. That’s one reason I won’t proclaim–here or anywhere else–my love of books or brag about how many books I have. (I will brag about the lonely orphans of second-hand books I have occasionally brought home, however, and kept close to me through the years: The Complete Works and Letters of Charles Lamb, the poor, neglected thing, and a 1963 edition of Waverley with cute colored-pencil illustrations).

And so, from now on, to get a sense of peace, of timelessness and of the pleasure that comes of these things, it’s the library I’ll be heading to, not my local independent bookstore. And when I hear the local bookstore tout itself as a mainstay of culture in my community, I’ll be thinking about the unpleasant nature of the publishing industry, the difficulty encountered by writers of all varieties and talent levels, and the intense competition for attention waged by all of the above entities. I’ll disappear into the stacks, turn up yet another unloved copy of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, and I’ll remember that bookstores themselves might just be the enemy of all writers and readers who truly love books.

2 thoughts on “Why Bookstores Might Be the Enemy

  1. Libraries are like academic, intellectual and cultural anchors. Yes, they are integral hubs, but what ever is borrowed from them is chained to that point. Those chains may be long, but they are linked none the less. Owning the books allows for easy reference, mark up, referral and free distribution with no fees.

    Is it so bad that ideas and stories are a commodity? Oil, coffee and chocolate are, and they only provide fuel or indulgence. Ideas can become education, and can be molded and used in new and innovative ways. Stories are cultural wealth that allow us to devour more life than we can live. They have value. A world where books are freely traded, given and shared without obligation is preferable, but in our world, commerce isn’t bad option, especially when it is supported by alternate institutions like libraries.

    Also, exchange allows us to give value. Are all ideas equal? Are all stories worth telling? Put them in a market and society can tell its story, a culture can gauge its wealth. It would be to simplistic to look at best sellers and measure a society compared to Fifty Shades of Grey, or even the Harry Potter series. But, what sticks around? Woolf, Shakespeare, Hardy, Melville, Joyce and more still line the shelves of both libraries and bookstores, but that is only a small smattering of what has been published. Much else, even though popular, has been deemed irrelevant to our understanding of our society, culture and lives. Bookstores are unfair, they are influenced by the critics and academics, but they are were the proletariat gets their opportunity to judge.


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