Krugman was interviewed in the Boston Globe. Everybody’s making a big deal out of how he’s a hard sci-fi buff. To be fair, that’s pretty damn cool. What I latched onto, however, was something I’ve been frustrated by before:
The problem with digital books is that you can always find what you are looking for but you need to go to a bookstore to find what you weren’t looking for.
This is one of those obvious things that seems to come up every time somebody muses over the problem of e-readers and such. Amazon has its Kindle store, and there are a myriad of “suggest a book” websites that leverage varying degrees of effort.
But, I’m reminded of Books Inc. in Burlingame. For years, when I’ve gone to the bay area, I’ve tried to stop here when I’ve had time. It’s an independent chain, but it’s hard to realize that when you visit just one store. It feels like it’s been there forever. It’s not particularly fancy, wedged into a strip mall with sufficient, but not particularly attractive, furnishings. The selection is relatively small, with a few shelves dedicated to each genre.
What I love about this book store is that I can browse around and easily find something completely unexpected. I can pick it up, flip through it, and go on from there. Sometimes I browse within genres I know, sometimes I find myself picking up strange offerings from biography and history sections.
What’s impressive to me about the store is that it is a well-curated selection of books that are more frequently interesting than not. There are some staff picks with hand-written descriptions (I still love this custom), but one need not rely on those to find something new.
In the end, Books Inc. is not a bookstore you visit to find what you’re looking for. I’ve never, in fact, found a book that I was looking for there.
I’ve certainly discovered new books via the Internet and various online tools and storefronts. Some of them have been enjoyable. Somehow the experience never feels the same. I can’t tell if there’s a genuine difference or if it’s some foolish romantic notion.
Surely there are some differences. A suggestion website or commerce system has a massive catalog, rather than a constrained selection of titles. When confronted with a large inventory, there’s a tendency for obsessive min-maxing of sorts; star ratings and reviews quickly screen out things on the periphery that might be interesting. It’s easy to find things that are generally appealing to the general target market, but finding things that are personally resonant becomes a chore. It’s the problem of Oprah’s book club and similar efforts for me. The books are meaningful, deep, poignant, and whatnot, but they feel like they’re deep and meaningful for a population.
I take it as a given that brick and mortar book stores will continue to die in their current forms. The tide of electronic commerce and electronic books is going to relegate what we thought of as book stores to the same fate as music stores. There’s always things like used book stores, but those are largely full of junk that nobody wants. They’re good for decorating shelves with books, but the signal to noise ratio is horrible. One’s never (seldom?) going to find a used book store that says “no, I don’t want to buy that, it’s not interesting enough to be in my collection.”
I want little well-curated book stores to survive, but I don’t know if they will. If they don’t, I’m not really sure what fills that hole.
I can’t help but feel there’s something here similar to channel flipping on television. I haven’t had cable in half a decade now; I watch television on demand with what I purchase when I want to. I don’t discover anything randomly. The things I venture out and try are critically acclaimed or create a buzz among friends. Television never really had a phase where there was a well-curated selection of shows or whatever that I can be nostalgic about. There’s nothing there I miss. If a generation grows up without the well curated small bookstore for books, it probably will not miss the concept either. So perhaps I’ve answered my question, but that’s a little sad.