I’m not normally an impulse buyer except, it seems, when I visit the bookshop at the National Library of Australia! I tell myself I’m not interested in little books – you know, the sort bookshops put on their sales counters – but somehow the National Library of Australia regularly manages to break down my resolution. Last year I reviewed Dorothy Porter‘s On passion which I bought from their counter. Today, I’m going to write about Ann Patchett‘s essay “The bookshop strikes back”.
My purchase went like this. I was standing at the counter a few days ago making my purchases when this tiny little 20-page off-white booklet caught my eye. I picked it up, and said to the bookseller, “This looks interesting”. “Oh yes”, she said, “we had them in for National Bookshop Day?” Well, I knew then what I had to do …
I’ve been trying to remember when I first heard that the book was dead, but I think it was back in the 1970s when it was argued that the easy availability of video would spell the end of reading. I wouldn’t be surprised if the same was said when movies appeared, when radio came on the scene, and so on. Surprisingly, though, books seem to survive! Except, it’s not surprising to us readers is it?
Books are facing a new challenge in our digital world – but, so far, the main issue seems to be more about the form of the book (as in print vs digital) than the survival of reading. However, bookshops do seem to be at risk. Ann Patchett suddenly found one day that her town, Nashville, Tennessee, no less, had no bookshops (other than a used bookshop and stores like Target). Apparently the last one to go – an independent that had been bought out by a chain – had been profitable “but not profitable enough”. Patchett’s discovery, albeit on a smaller scale, replicates the situation at my local mall, which is one of my city’s main shopping centres. Fortunately, though, we do have some great bookshops in other parts of the city.
Patchett doesn’t spend a lot of time discussing the whys, though the prevailing view seems to be that the combination of online bookselling giants like Amazon and the rise of e-books are causing the demise of bookshops – both chain stores and the independents. But, Ann Patchett believes things may be changing. She writes:
… all things happen in a cycle, I explained – the little bookstore had succeeded and grown into a bigger bookstore. Seeing the potential for profit, chains rose up and crushed the independents, then Amazon rose up and crushed the superstore chains. Now that we could order any book at any hour without having to leave the screen in front of us, we realised what we had lost: the community center, the human interaction, the recommendation of a smart reader than a computer algorithm telling us what other shoppers had purchased.
This may be a little simplistic but history does have a habit of repeating itself doesn’t it! So Patchett, who was later “dizzied by the blitheness that stood in place of any business sense”, established, with two other women, a new independent bookshop in Nashville … and found that on book tours for her most recent book, State of wonder, interviewers were more interested in asking her about her bookshop plans than about her book. She laughs that on the day the bookshop opened in November 2011, the New York Times ran a story with a picture of her on page A1, something that her agent and publisher would never expect to achieve on the basis of her role as a literary novelist.
This is not a highly analytical essay, but it’s a lovely read about the love of books and bookshops. It provides a nice contrast to the fascinating but ultimately sad story of a bookshop I read a few years ago – Annette Freeman’s semi-self-published Tea in the library. Freeman, like many booklovers, dreamed of having a bookshop – one in which readers could come, buy books, stay for a cuppa, and meet authors. She had a lovely vision, but it failed after a couple of years, something she explores openly and honestly in her book.
For Patchett though, so far so good. She’s not sure why they’ve been successful but she says
my luck has made me believe that changing the course of the corporate world is possible.
I hope she’s right – but I guess for her to be so, we need more brave (or blithe) booksellers and more readers who want the personal touch, because, after all, we are in this together.
“The bookshop strikes back”
London: Bloomsbury, 2013
Originally published in Atlantic Monthly, November 2012
To appear in This is the story of a happy marriage (Bloomsbury, later 2013)
Available: Online at Atlantic Monthly