A bookstore is one of the only pieces of evidence we have that people are still thinking.—Jerry Seinfeld
This past summer, I was downtown Chattanooga, Tennessee with two of my sons enjoying Moon Pies and Coca-Cola when we came across a store they hadn’t visited before. The storefront was unassuming, a simple black on yellow sign giving the name of the store but not really indicating its contents. From the opposite side of the street, glare prevented seeing through the plate glass window, so we chose to investigate.
Walking through the door, our senses were immediately overwhelmed. Books lined hand-made shelves from one end of the store to the other. Not just new books, either. Beautiful, old, brown-at-the-edges books that had been loved and read for years upon years were there, some dating back to the very first part of the 20th century. My boys are equally avid readers as their parents and quickly took to exploring everything they could find in the stacks. There were books they’d never known were available. Books that were so far out of print that even digital reprints can’t be had. Every genre one could imagine, at every reading level, was right there, waiting to be explored, to be loved, and perhaps to be taken home. Had common sense not prevailed, we might have gone broke.
Bookstores were once a staple of Western culture, a part of life that was critical to society. Having a bookstore meant a town had vision to look beyond itself. Having more than one bookstore meant the city was open to ideas and fostered intellectual pondering. Bookstores were part of a neighborhood identity and their contents gave as clear a demographic picture as any census or survey. Bookstores were heaven.
Then came the mega stores, Borders and Barnes & Noble, that forced the small mom-and-pop stores out of business. We griped. We complained. But the new stores had coffee and would let us sit and browse for hours without actually making a purchase, so we still shopped there.
Along came the Internet and a man named Jeff Bezos introduced us to this thing called Amazon.com and the entire business of bookselling changed. There were easy comparisons. There were ready reviews. There were lower prices; sometimes significantly lower. Slowly but surely, even the biggest brick and mortar bookstores began to close or severely downsize. While bookstores still exist, they’re much more difficult to find.
Yesterday, a mall real estate developer, Sandeep Mathran, said during a corporate earnings call that Amazon, that giant online retailer that drove everyone else out of business, is going to open between 300-400 new brick-and-mortar bookstores. The Internet lost its collective mind. Yes, we understand the irony. At the same time, though, the romantic thought of 400 new bookstores dotting the country got everyone very excited.
Since that initial statement was released, there has been speculation that Mr. Mathran may have been trying to paint a picture for investors that is less than accurate. Amazon has refused to confirm or deny Mathran’s statement and persons close to the company say the move doesn’t make financial sense for the retailer. So, don’t go planning those browsing trips just yet.
Still, we like to dream and nothing fuels dreams any faster than do bookstores. While shopping online might be more cost effective and give us access to a wider range of books, nothing beats wandering the aisles of a bookstore and finding titles and authors we would not have considered otherwise. Bookstore shopping is very different than online book shopping. When we shop online, we are typically looking for something specific, either in terms of subject or author. We might, occasionally, click on the automated recommendations of the website, but we go to the site with a fair idea of what we want to buy.
When we shop in a bookstore, however, we allow ourselves the option to browse. We might go in looking for a specific book, but then we stay and look at different genres, explore different interests, and allow ourselves to be swept away by all the possibilities. Instead of leaving with just one book, we are more likely to walk out the door with multiples.
As much as I like bookstores, I will admit that I frequently do shop Amazon. Not only do I shop on Amazon, I sell on Amazon. You can buy all my books, including the one in the pictures above, by clicking this link. One of the great advantages of Amazon is it that they have the ability to sell print-on-demand titles that a bookstore would not be able to stock. Where I would never be able to convince Barnes & Noble or Books-A-Million to carry my tomes, Amazon is eager to cooperate.
I love bookstores and can get lost spending hours wandering the stacks. I would not complain at all if Amazon were to actually open several brick-and-mortar stores (though 400 does sound unreasonably aggressive). Bookstores and dreaming are a natural combination and I don’t know any creative person who doesn’t like to dream. We’ll wait and see what happens. Should Amazon open a store near me, though, don’t expect to find me online too often. I’ll be somewhere midst all the shelves, indulging in dreams.