The Slow Painful Death of Book Stores

She was a young and thin, a wraith, and she handed me the book she wanted to buy and said, “ I have to buy this because I sat down to read it and was sobbing within three minutes.” And she opened the book and showed me the tears that had fallen on one of Keats’ poems. How sweet that was. Another young woman, her belly and breasts straining at the leash of her blouse comes in with a young man. They browse awhile and she hands me a small early 19th century Bible and asks, “How much is it?”

I know she hasn’t been in a used and antiquarian book shop before because if she had she would have known that the price is always marked inside the cover in pencil.Fahrenheit 451

“Twenty dollars,” I said. She left happy, pregnant with child and the Word of God.

Another day, another customer. A new customer whose daughter only wanted one thing for Christmas–to have her much used cook book repaired or rebound. I recommended a couple of book binders and told her it would probably cost at least $100. That was more than she wanted to pay.

The cookbook was the softcover type that non-profits put together for fundraisers. Another bookseller had checked online and found several copies for her, but unfortunately she could not tell if they were the same as the one she wanted even though the covers looked the same because many different organizations created cookbooks using the same publisher with the same cover and format.

After discussing other options, I finally asked to see it. She took it out of the plastic bag and handed it to me. I opened it up and found out that it was put out by the Montgomery County Infirmary in Amsterdam, New York about 30 years ago. I walked over to my box of Amsterdam ephemera, leafed through it and pulled one out in nice condition. Price. $2.50. Made her day and mine.

And there is a man who says, “Thank you for being here,” every time he leaves the store.

It is moments like these that make my years as a bookseller in a small upstate New York rust belt city worthwhile. However, these incidents while emotionally rewarding don’t pay the bills, and over the nearly 25 years I have been selling used and antiquarian books, paying the bills has gotten harder and harder.

Who could have foreseen how the internet and e-readers would change the book business? Who could have foreseen that the fourteen volumes of The Papers of Sir William Johnson which once sold for $1200 would be put on a searchable cd and made available for $20? Who could have foreseen that books with expired copyrights would be scanned and digital copies made available for free or at little cost to readers? Who could have foreseen that books once rare and expensive, would no longer be rare or expensive? Who could have foreseen that selling books on the internet, very profitable in the early days, would become a buyer’s market, where a glut of sellers would push prices down to as little as a penny a book? Who could have seen the addictive nature of social media, and the way it pulls people away from reading?

I am riding a dinosaur into the Ice Age, an age without books, booksellers and book stores, at least as we know them. I always thought Kindle was a strange name for Amazon to give its e-reader; Kindle Fire stirs images of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. Fahrenheit 451 is the temperature at which paper ignites. While I have not been able to discover the temperature at which a Kindle ignites, lithium batteries, which most e-readers use, ignite at temperatures between Fahrenheit 140 and 350. If an e-reader does catch fire, it can reach temperatures of Fahrenheit 1500. Worse, it can explode.

Nevertheless, Kindles and other e-readers are here to stay. The internet is here to stay. There is no going back, just as there was no going back to handwritten manuscripts after the printing press was invented in the mid fifteenth century. To be sure there was a transition period, during which hand copied books and printed books existed side by side. Scriveners would find work for centuries, copying single or multiple copies of documents that would be too expensive to set up in type. The photocopier did away with that, at least in advanced societies.

People mean well when they come into my store and say they will never use an e-reader, they have to have a physical book in their hands. The problem is there are fewer and fewer people coming into the store. Journalists mean well when they write stories about newly opened book stores and stores thriving in the digital age. That doesn’t change the fact that there are fewer and fewer book stores—new or antiquarian—every year. According to Humanities Indicators a project of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, using statistics gathered from the U. S. Census Bureau, there were 13,736 bookstores in the United States in 1992. In 2014 that number had dropped to 6,888. The decline is even more dramatic when we consider that the population of the country increased by nearly 75 million during that time.

I selected 1992 as a starting point for comparison for two reasons. First, it was 25 years ago. Secondly, on June 21, 1992, the New York Times Book Review published an essay, “The End of Books,” by Robert Coover, which was more about hypertextuality and the end of the novel than it was about the end of books. However, the assumption, laid out in the first paragraph, was that the physical book was moribund, and its demise was inevitable. I was one of the many people who wrote a letter to the editor, which was published, taking Coover to task for saying the book was dead.

In December 1993, still confident that physical books were here to stay, I started a used and antiquarian book business. For the first ten years, things went well. When I first started selling on the internet, it boosted my business. For several years now, however, my internet sales have declined along with my in store sales. Buying and selling on the internet is a two edged sword. People in other parts of the country can sit at home and buy books from me. However, local people who used to come to my store can also sit at home and order books from other parts of the country.

Forbes magazine (April 2, 2014) estimates that Amazon had sold 43.7 Kindle devices by the end of 2013. The article also stated, “Assuming a 3-year replacement cycle, we conclude that there may be approximately 30 million Kindle e-readers currently in use.” This number has grown since then. Add to this the number of other e-readers, tablets and notebook computers that people use to read books, and it is hard to ignore their threat to the continuation of the physical book. Many people are now reading books on their cell phones as well.

“Bless me, father for I have sinned.” I own a Kindle Fire. Even worse, I use it. I do not read books on it, at least not cover to cover, and I don’t expect I ever will. I have bookcases full of books and piles on the floor near my recliner and bed. I plan to build more bookcases and purchase more books.

However, since I write a history column for our local paper, I find my Kindle useful for downloading books I need for research. I have downloaded books from the Hathi Trust and Internet Archives that I either cannot obtain or cannot afford. I have only ever owned a couple of copies of the New York State Railroad Commissioner Reports. These mundane reports are relatively scarce and usually sell for $75 or more. I was able to download eleven of them for free in order to do the research I needed to write an article on the Saratoga, Mt. McGregor and Lake George Railroad, which took President Grant to the cottage where he finished his memoirs a few days before he died.

To deny that digital books will replace physical books is to deny reality and to ignore history. Digital music is replacing cds which replaced audio tapes which replaced records. Sure you can still buy records. Vintage and new record albums have even made a comeback lately. To think that means that they will replace mp3 files is delusional. The death of the physical book, as prophesied by Coover and others, is taking a long time, nevertheless its pulse gets weaker by the year. As Andrew Nusca said in the September 24, 2015 issue of Fortune, after the invention of the Gutenberg press “The printed book exploded in popularity and signaled the end of the hand-crafted era—but it took more than a century for hand-printed books to disappear.”

Right now the machine printed book is in the same relationship with the digital book that the hand-printed book had with the machine printed book in the late 15th century. The two are co-existing, but the digital book is growing yearly at the expense of the physical book.

It is only in the first paragraph of his 1992 essay, that Coover got it right when he said, “In the real world nowadays, that is to say, in the world of video transmissions, cellular phones, fax machines, computer networks, and in particular out in the humming digitalized precincts of avant-garde computer hackers, cyberpunks and hyperspace freaks, you will often hear it said that the print medium is a doomed and outdated technology, a mere curiosity of bygone days destined soon to be consigned forever to those dusty unattended museums we now call libraries. Indeed, the very proliferation of books and other print-based media, so prevalent in this forest-harvesting, paper-wasting age, is held to be a sign of its feverish moribundity, the last futile gasp of a once vital form before it finally passes away forever, dead as God.”

Re-reading Coover, I can see that what Coover got wrong was not that the physical book was dying but that its demise would lead to the death of the novel as we know it and that hypertextuality would become the norm. Neither has happened. The novel is doing well in the digital age. People who read novels, particularly popular ones, seem especially drawn to digital books and e-readers. And hypertextuality has been rejected, and traditional straight forward narrative is still in fashion.

Furthermore it appears that Coover was premature in writing the obituary of God.

© 2018

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