Why Support and Preserve Bookstores?

(This essay was originally written by Michelle Barron, owner of the Book House, as part of our currently running Kickstarter Campaign. If nothing else, I would add my personal reason for preserving bookstores – like so many things we only recognise in retrospect, the world would be a poorer place without them. )

We have been asked “why support a bookstore”? Isn’t it a dying industry with “everything” on the internet and ebooks and a changing world and economy? Are bookstores a thing of the past?  Should’t  we just give up and sell everything for pennies on the dollar, probably putting lifetime collections in the recycling bin . . .  After all you can just google whatever you want.  Or find it for a dollar on Amazon. Why hold on to collections of books?  Are we just obsessive hoarders? 

Well I could get all sentimental and bring up all the tired old arguments about the “smell” of old books or how they look nice on a bookshelf and nothing like holding a book in your hands.  And there is also the “educational benefits”  of a community bookstore, “cultural” events, a place to  gather  and celebrate the love of these unique archival objects called books. 

But is that really enough?  If bookselling was such a good business model why is it so rarely profitable?  Why can’t we get a loan?  Why do we need help to open up a new location for our bookstore?.  Why pay to move, store, and reinforce floors to hold 250,000 books when it costs so much?  Why, if so many people love books and  bookstores (which we hear everyday) are so many stores struggling and closing?   Why are libraries throwing away books at record levels?  Is it just a matter of supply and demand?  Are books worthless or over priced and we should just sell them as cheap as possible like so many widgets? Does nobody want them anymore? Perhaps bookstores are just “showrooms” now, museums of the past like horses and buggies

I would argue that it is much more complicated than that.  In some sense bookstores are the canaries in the coal mine of serious changes in our economic value structure.  Cheap goods, produced by cheap labor, huge companies, box stores, distribution channels, etc.  But I’m not going to ramble about that ( although there are many points to be made on that subject)  I’m not an economist, just a business owner trying to work on margins, and pay bills, and manage day by day.

But here is an undeniable fact.  Books are not only conveyors of information and stories and ideas, beautiful art and memories, but they are very definitely tangible OBJECTS.  Books are heavy, they are dense, they cannot survive water, dampness, bugs, or fire.  They are perishable, but given proper care can outlast a lifetime, and often survive for centuries.  Books carry smells, can mold and oxidize.  They hold the DNA traces of former readers.  They are made of trees.  They are organic, alive, they breathe, they rot, the can turn back into dirt, they are recyclable.

Books take time to “digest”.   There are good books and obsolete books, rare books and worthless books.  They take time to catalog, to process, to tell the difference between them. You really cannot “judge a book by its cover”.  Books need to Be INTERACTED with to have value.   Books need time to be discovered and shared.  They need quiet places.  Sometimes a great book or author can linger for years before finding its reader… 

A pile of old books is very hard to deal with and often takes more time to pack, carry, sort, store, catalogue, shelve, display, locate, research, and maybe eventually read then it’s “monetary” worth.  And the reality is that a bookstore usually needs to carry 100 books to sell one.  That turnover rate would be a dismal failure in any other “widget” industry, but that’s the reality.   Not because no one wants the books but because matching books to people is unique and it takes time. Different readers like different things at different times.  The exact same book can be worth 50 cents or $15 depending on the place and situation where it is sold.  A book in a pile of boxes is a bargain that you stumble across, a book that is exactly what you were looking for right now, is worth quite a bit more.    Part of the art of Bookselling is trying to “predict” what people will like and investing in the “right” stock which changes constantly.  A good bookstore houses, orders,  processes, and displays many types of books tying up thousands and thousands of dollars in the hopes of selling a fraction of the stock.  Books are NOT like commodities  that must turnover every 6 months or be thrown away. Often books actually ripen with age and become more valuable over time.

But we are in a throwaway culture where everything has a dollar value –  time, space, information, and objects.  And a rush to cut costs.   Virtual objects are “cheaper”.  They do not have to be moved or stored, they don’t cost money to make or use up raw materials to produce, the can be easily shared or purchased in seconds, etc.  Wheres, “real” objects, especially archival, older,  heavy, fragile, or not easily disposed of items are expensive.   They clutter our lives, cost to store, move, or dispose of.  They take up our time.  They take up room on a small planet.  So logically books are doomed. Right?

I would argue with a story.  Books (and bookstores) are either Worthless or Priceless depending on who holds them or the world one wants to live in.   I compare a large book collection to a White Elephant or a Siberian Tiger.   These animals are beautiful, irreplaceable, and Endangered, Rare.   There is the classic story of  African rulers giving a Precious White Elephant to another ruler as a sign of great respect and power, but giving them to an enemy because the animals cost more in upkeep then their “value”.  It is an interesting comparison with not a small amount of parallels to your grandmothers book collection !  But take the story further.   There are many things in our culture that are “too” expensive – that cost a lot to keep – historic buildings,  wilderness areas, art, beautiful places, family farms,  free time,  many of the beloved things from our past are now “too expensive”.   Real elephants and tigers,  as well as many other unique animals are almost extinct because  it doesn’t make economic sense to preserve their habitats.  Many of the worlds most precious resources are being destroyed or abandoned,  or are dying because no one cares enough to preserve them.  Does this now include bookstores too?  Do you really want to live in a world without bookstores, or are they a community resource that should be preserved and cherished for the next generation to experience and enjoy.  We cannot do this alone.  Thank you for supporting our Kickstarter, please spread the word and support bricks and mortar bookstores in your community.  

Anyway, I hope I haven’t bored you with my rambling.  Perhaps it can spark some discussion.  Please let me know what you think.  Please help us continue our work. Thank you.

—  Michelle Barron, bookseller

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