Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Independently-owned bookstores are going out of business because 11 years ago, some French guy got a job that required him to move.

OK, that's obviously ridiculous. However, it wouldn't be ridiculous to say that I've stopped supporting such stores because that guy got that job, even though I never met him. Even that isn't clear and certain, but it's not ridiculous either. Between high school and college I spent a year in France as an exchange student. Normally the program I was with would assign each student to three host families, but I'm told that the family scheduled to be my third had to back out on relatively short notice due to moving for a new job, or something like that. They didn't have a backup family willing to host me for the full three months remaining, so I lived with three different families during that time.

My time in France was a great experience overall and I got lucky living with nice, welcoming families each time, but I would not suggest moving seven times in one year. (My parents moved while I was away so I came home to a new house, and of course I started college not too long after I got back.) So I have the sense that moving is more annoying to me than to most people and/or than it "should" be. Likewise, I think I'm a bit reluctant to accumulate possessions, in case of the next move. Books, for example. My parents got me an e-book reader for Christmas 2009 with my input. I'm a geeky, tech-friendly guy in general, but for me easily the biggest selling point for it is that it takes up less space than physical books.

Going shopping last weekend got me thinking of this again, but I've been thinking about it off and on since some time around March or so, when I went to a bookstore with some friends where Sarah Vowell was on tour to promote her new book. When asked what she thought of e-books, she said she was ambivalent: she knows they're convenient from personal experience, but she sees them as bad for authors like her and bookstores she likes. She argued that her quirky, idiosyncratic style is best suited to physical bookstores, especially small, independent bookstores, where people can browse and jump around and there's just one shelf between completely different sections, but e-book readers make bookstores obsolete and the hardest hit are the ones that can't manage economies of scale. She had an anecdote about some guy who went to a bookstore regularly and asked the owner's advice about what new books he'd like, until one day when the customer bought an e-book reader. He still showed up and asked the owner for advice, but then he went home to download the recommended books instead of buying them from that store.

Well, it's not like I was shopping from a small, independent bookstore right I got my e-book reader, but still. That bookstore where I saw Sarah Vowell speak, Politics & Prose, was such a place, and it was really nice. Just while browsing around there I discovered one author I definitely liked - I've already devoured half a dozen books of his - and another I think I'll like. If I had discovered that place before I got my e-book reader I might be making treks out there monthly or even more often. But as it is, going all the way out there for books is far more inconvenient than downloading them.

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