I like bookstores. Actually, it’s more general than that. I like libraries too. I like sitting next to bookshelves and just peering at them, memorizing everything that’s there. I like spending hours just browsing the stacks, running my finger down the spines of the books, pausing every once in a while to pick one out and leaf through its pages. In high school and college, I used to have entire sections of the school or university library memorized. I could find any book that I had found once before just by going to the right set of shelves and walking to the right spot. I can still visualize some of those shelves in my head, although the contents are by now long gone. I like to do the same thing in my favorite bookstores.
I like hanging around books. It’s not a good time to be me.
Books, culturally speaking, are on the way out along with every other form of cultural consumption that requires more than a 10 second attention span. With the dozens of hours of reality television shows, sports, internet surfing, and most importantly, MMORPGs to consume every week, it appears that no one has “time” for books anymore. I would be bitter about this, but I’m just as guilty as everyone else. And, even when I have time to consume a book I go off and buy it for my cell phone book reader instead of obtaining the real thing from a nice bookshelf somewhere.
You see the effects of this cultural shift everywhere. Pittsburgh is blessed with one of the most fantastic public libraries in the entire country. What do you find when you enter this august institution? You find 12 year olds playing Runescape. The place looks and feels like the main terminal room for the Computer Science department at Carnegie Mellon when I was an undergraduate. It’s open, a bit sterile, and filled with the sound of keyboards. At the smaller branches, the actual space for books is so sparse that it’s not even worth spending some time scanning the shelves. There is little to look at.
I don’t let this bother me. I just go to the main branch in Oakland when I need a bookshelf fix. The main branch does not have as many computer terminals, and has less empty space as well.
But then, the other night, I spied a book in a window that I wanted to pick up. It was the 2009 Best American Sports Writing. I like books of essays. I didn’t get to get in the store that night, and thought “well, I’ll just drop by the Borders on my way home tomorrow.” This Borders was built near the house we bought in a northern Pittsburgh suburb about a year after we moved up there. Back before amazon.com, we spent a ludicrous percentage of our disposable income there. Like the libraries of my youth, I liked hanging out there, remembering where all the books were.
So I dropped in, ready to go find my essay book. They keep the essay collections over on the end of the fiction shelves. I knew just where the book should be. But something seemed off the minute I actually walked in the store. My senses were attacked by a local group of young people playing “music” in the “cafe”. I thought to myself, why should I have to be distracted by this folk-rock bullshit while I look for my book? Undaunted, I sauntered over to the shelf, feeling a bit of extra stress as I wanted to escape the din. I could not find the book. I could not find any of the essay collections that used to be there. I thought maybe it should be in Sports, which had recently moved. So I went down there but still could not find it because I was unfamiliar with the layout.
Now I was getting annoyed. I had to ask the store clerk where the book was, and she had to look it up on the in-store computer. At that point I realized that my entire world had fallen apart. I mean, if you go into a bookstore and you have to find the book on the Internet terminal anyway, then what precisely is the point for the store existing? Why have they taken what used to be this relaxing space for hanging out and memorizing useless information into an awful and annoying assault on the senses? I have to assume that Borders is reasoning that they have to do all they can to keep the attention of the patrons of their store. Since no one has “time” for books alone, the bookstore must also be a cafe, a restaurant, a live music performance venue and a tacky gift shop. An entire shopping mall under one roof, although one with fewer books than the store used to have. All these things are like the computers playing Runescape, only for adults (1).
They saved the final insult for last. After suffering all this indignity, it turns out I could have bought the damn book at amazon.com for between 30% to 50% less money. So I bought one book at the store, and saved my other purchase for amazon. I’d have felt guilty about this in the past, since I have an interest in supporting my local bookstore. But now I feel no remorse, because the bookstore as I know it has been removed from the face of the earth. Maybe if I am lucky it will return to me some day, inviting me to again commune in that dense field of bookshelves, running my fingers along the spines and remembering where all the books sit. I’m not optimistic though. It seems like the time for such a place is in the past.
1. I realize that World of Warcraft is really Runescape for adults.