Friday, September 2, 2011


by Sheila Connolly

This past weekend, author Ann Patchett wrote a delightful short article called "On Bugs and Books" for the New York Times (sorry, but I don't think you can access the link unless you're a subscriber). It first caught my eye because of the "bugs" in the title, since my husband is a research entomologist, but in fact it turned out to be a piece linking book tours to 13-year cicadas—no easy feat.

Patchett doesn't like book tours: they make her anxious. I'm sure many writers can identify with that (at least, the ones who can afford book tours, with or without their publisher's help), but Patchett gracefully acknowledges that book tours are "the price of doing business."


But Patchett is doing more than following the script for successful writers: she's putting her money where her mouth it and will be opening a bookstore (yes, a real bricks-and-mortar one) in October. Why?

First of all, she believes that Americans are still reading books, based on what she saw on her book tour this summer, when people showed up at her signings carrying her books—including the more expensive hardcovers. Bookstores are still selling books, bless them. And her concept of the most functional bookstore in these rapidly changing days is the small, locally owned, independent bookstore. She sees this as part of an almost biological cycle: "the little bookstore grew into a big bookstore, which was squashed by the superstore, which folded beneath the Internet store, which made people long for a little bookstore"—all this in only 13 years. Wouldn't it be nice if the demise of Borders has yielded tiny sprouts of new, local bookstores?

As I may have mentioned before, my daughter has been working at a local independent bookstore for the past four years. It's a quirky place, much loved by its patrons. It's physically huge, with an amazing selection, including a lot of backlist. Admittedly they don't make it easy for anyone to find a book, since they're filed according to publisher and title, not author (a practice that always mystifies me). There are only two computer terminals on the floor for customers to use to search. So how do people find what they want? They ask people—the knowledgeable staff, many of whom have worked there for years.

But there's another important point about "real" bookstores: you can browse. I'll admit I buy books through Amazon. Often I want to find something that's out of print or obscure, and usually I can find a copy through one of Amazon's subcontractors, or whatever they're called. (Yes, I do use my local library, but often what I want isn't available, even through the regional system.) But I'm also very conscious of how Amazon manipulates its buyers, with phrases like "Customers who bought this item also bought…" or "Customers also bought items by…" or "Customers also considered…" I accept that it's good marketing, and Amazon recognizes that someone who likes a particular genre probably buys a lot of that genre.

But there's no serendipity. There's no joy in wandering the aisles, picking up whatever catches your fancy. There's no "aha!" moment on Amazon. In a physical bookstore you have the opportunity to find something you didn't even know you were looking for, and that's a pleasure. Or you can wander in and say to a clerk (like my daughter), "I'm looking for that new book—I think it's about a horse—I know the cover is blue or maybe green—she wrote something about rabbits a couple of years ago"—and you'll get an answer. Try putting "new+horse+blue+rabbits" into an Amazon search and see what you get.

So thank you, Ann Patchett, for take a stand and keeping the small bookstore alive. And, readers, if you're in the Nashville area any time from October on, stop in at Parnassus Books and vote with your pocketbook to prove Ann Patchett right and keep bookstores thriving.


Sandra Parshall said...

I would love to see independent stores thriving again, but I don't think we can count the chains out just yet. Books-A-Million is expanding beyond the southeast and has received permission from the court to take over some Borders stores. Another vendor has already claimed some of the vacated Borders outlets in airports. Interesting times!

Paul said...

I've decided that from now on, every time I go into a bookstore (new or used) I will buy a book -- an actual physical-object book. I'm going to do this both to support the bricks-and-mortar stores and the paper medium of books.

I suppose I'm an anachronism, or will soon be. I look at the delivery system for music and see that though the glory days of the LP and the CD are pretty much gone (with flickers of life now and then), music is still being made/bought/sold as much as ever. (And with the advent of the cloud, even downloading -- the new medium -- will be changing.) Yet more music is being written and recorded than ever. So, I suspect, will be the case with story telling. We're simply going to need to adapt to the new world order.

Nonetheless, I love the tangibility of an actual book in my hands. The turn of the page. Even the smell of the paper. Inscriptions. Underlines. Marginalia. There's something about an old fashioned library with book-filled shelves lining the walls that I hanker for. And nothing is going to give me all of those gratifying sensations except an actual bookstore.

Sheila Connolly said...

I agree with you on all points, Paul, which may explain all the piles of books around my house. And, yes, I can't leave a bookstore--new or used, discount or full-price--without buying something.

As you point out, the distribution media keep evolving, but the bottom line is, people are reading books, and writers are creating books for them. What the small bookstore can add is the personal touch, the all-important recommendation, the essential word of mouth.