Tony Dobrowolski: Why our real books matter
Call me crazy, but I like the feel of a real book in my hands. I like turning the pages, looking at the cover art, perusing the photos, if there are any, even reading the liner notes on the book jacket. I used to have plenty of company. But I don't anymore.
People still like to read books, but thanks to technology, the rising popularity of both eBooks and the ability to purchase books online are taking a serious chunk out of the traditional independent bookstore business.
Locally, the latest evidence of this trend is currently taking place in Pittsfield where the city's last remaining used book store, The Book Shelf on Elm Street, will close by the end of this month.
That's more than a shame for anyone who still likes to shop for books in person. But it's not uncommon.
Nationally, more than 1,000 bookstores closed between 2000 and 2007, according to the website, Eco-Libris. And it isn't just independent booksellers that are feeling the heat. So are the national chains.
Borders, the country's second largest book chain, closed its remaining 399 stores in 2011 and liquidated its assets when management couldn't find a buyer for the company. In 2013, Barnes & Noble announced that it planned to close a third of its stores over the next 10 years.
One reason Borders went out of business was because the chain originally outsourced all its online sales to Amazon.com, which gradually grew in popularity and cut significantly into the company's customer base.
According to Eco-Libris, Amazon now has a 22.6 percent share of the overall book market, slightly higher than Barnes & Noble (17.3 percent). The share of the market belonging to independent booksellers has shrunk to a paltry 6 percent.
Mary Killeen opened The Book Shelf in 1994. Not only has the book-selling market changed since then, she said, but reader's habits have, too.
"Because our time is taken up by so many different things, between Facebook, and online things, or the 700 stations you have on your television now, and everyday life which can be crazy juggling multiple jobs, people seem to only want to take the time to read the latest new book that they were told about, or the latest book that they saw on the ‘Today Show' or that Oprah suggested or whatever," Killeen said.
"People used to walk into a used book store and be thrilled to find the older books from an author they just found, or just look for a new author and pick them up at an inexpensive price instead of going to a new bookstore and pay full price for them," Killeen said. "Taking the time to wander a store and finding new books doesn't seem to happen as much.
"Now, I know they go to new bookstores," Killeen said, referring to book customers, "but again even when you go into a new bookstore there seems to be display upon display of New York Times bestsellers or whatever, and not so much the back books on all those authors."
This emphasis on promoting best sellers has caused bookstores to drop some of the authors they used to carry who haven't been prolific, she said.
"The little authors who put out 15 books, 10 years ago. ... They don't make room for them because they don't write anymore," Killeen said.
Personally, I'm not a big fan of eBooks. Yes, it's easier to download a book immediately into your electronic device instead of going to a bookstore. And yes, downloading books is an easy way to stock up on reading material if you're doing something like going on vacation. You can't beat the prices either.
Technology can be wonderful. It continues to change and better our lives in ways that we never imagined. But the downside of technology is that it eliminates the human element. It's sterile.
Storytelling has been around for centuries. It began so people could communicate their ideas to others face-to-face. Sharing, arguing, compromising in person, that's how religions were established, and political movements were formed. Books helped bring those ideas to a larger audience in a format that they could understand. Style, design and format make real books appealing to us. Ebooks don't. They all look alike. Online, they're just a commodity, another document to download, another pair of socks.
The Founding Fathers drew up the Declaration of Inde pendence -- one of the world's greatest political documents -- by meeting face-to-face for several days in a sweaty hall in Philadelphia.
If that document was drawn up today the formers would probably meet in a chat room, or communicate via Skype.
God help us all.
Tony Dobrowolski is the business editor of The Berkshire Eagle. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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