Love and Lucre
Our odd, abiding affair with bookstores
In his introduction to Browse, an anthology of 15 international writers’ reflections on the bookstores that shaped them, editor Henry Hitchings stresses the importance of bookshops as havens and cultural venues, but also as “mustering points”—places of ideas “too strange or explosive” for mass circulation, centres of “dissent and radicalism.” This militant enthusiasm might seem at odds with images of cats sunning themselves on books in display windows, but it speaks well to a certain international perspective on the institution as represented in the anthology. When Yiyun Li writes of her initiation into English through pirated copies of Reader’s Digest bought from a back alley Beijing storefront, or Alaa Al Aswany recalls reading his collection, Egypt on the Reserve Bench, to a charged bookstore audience days before the uprising at Tahrir Square, it serves as a reminder that these spaces aren’t only ones of “safety and sanity” but of rebellion.
These days, in North America, other sorts of revolution seem to threaten the industry. Ebooks came. Ebooks stalled. Amazon’s here. Will Amazon stall? We’re often told by those with concern for maintaining open, real-world cultural spaces that it should. But whatever the future holds for the writing, reading, and selling of books, it seems clear that readers’ romance with traditional bookshops will survive. The publication and early critical success of Browse, put out by the U.K.’s Pushkin Press, and Bookshops, a cultural history by Spanish academic Jorge Carrión, published by the Windsor, Ontario-based Biblioasis (for whom I worked until earlier this year), confirm the tenacity and cultural importance of that affair of the heart. In both titles, what stands out as the most radical function of the institution, one witnessed dramatically by Li and Aswany, is its role as a gateway to change—whether personal, political, or societal. It comes as no surprise that the potential of these spaces is most apparent during times of flux, whether it’s the waning of the Cultural Revolution or the waxing of the Arab Spring. Or, more broadly, during our global age of aggressive technological advance.
While this transformative aspect of bookstores is a theme explored by many in Browse, including Michael Dirda, Pankaj Mishra, and Elif Shafak, it’s most often coupled with memories of youth. As contributor Juan Gabriel Vásquez writes, “When a writer is asked to choose his favourite bookshops, he won’t generally pick the one he most often visits, but rather the scenes that inspire his nostalgia: the nostalgia of starting out.” Like most young readers, Vásquez fondly recalls spending “hours sitting on the ground, leafing through the towers of books [he’d] picked out in order to choose one.” Thankfully, with the possible exception of Maoist China, where, as Li writes, “books were to be paid for before being touched,” centuries of custom allow, and even encourage, this sort of manhandling—even to the point of thumbing through several chapters of a new book that might, in the end, after a several unsold months, return to its publisher for pulping.
Yet these old customs make for odd commerce. For all the browsing—in stores or online—are people buying? According to a 2014 report from the industry authority Bowker, some 300,000 new titles are now published annually—in America alone. (Include self-published books and the number tops one million.) While this might indicate a healthy readership, the truth is murky. Last year, a study undertaken by the National Endowment for the Arts revealed that the percentage of adults who read literature—novels, short stories, poetry, and plays—had dropped to a 30-year low. Forty-three percent of American adults, it found, had read “at least one work of literature” in the previous year—down almost fourteen percentage points since 1982. But it can’t be all bad, especially given the wave of stories heralding the revival of brick-and-mortar independent bookstores. After decades of closures, the indies seem primed for recovery in communities where Chapters and Barnes & Noble failed. The market capacity for throw cushions and tea cozies, it turns out, is less robust than it is for books hand-sold by knowledgeable staff.
Given the trade’s white-shoe leanings, it shouldn’t surprise us that another recurring theme throughout both books is the shuttering of cherished stores. In Bookshops, Jorge Carrión reflects on several former storefronts, including Manhattan’s legendary Gotham Book Mart. Dirda laments the loss of many that once thrived during the 1980s, “when the greater Washington [D.C.] metro area boasted forty or fifty shops.” Novelist Iain Sinclair dedicates his contribution in Browse to the rise and fall of Bookmans Halt (“no apostrophe, please”), a “functioning used-book pit that represented everything now amputated from the good life” in England. It’s said that all small presses are two mistakes away from bankruptcy. Bookstores may have more leeway, but not by much. In the end, as with any business, success comes down to numbers.
The figure I was quoted by one bookseller was “between five and ten thousand.” That was the number of decisions he had to make when at the London Book Fair. I’m not speaking here of the great marketplace in England, where publishers hammer out deals for international translation rights—but a quieter affair that, for 36 years, has been taking place out of a block of hotel suites in London, Ontario. Each spring, fall, and winter, publisher sales representatives and regional booksellers meet to sell and order, respectively, new titles scheduled for publication the following season. Similar fairs are held in large and mid-sized cities across the continent. All follow a similar model: During private two- to four-hour appointments, reps guide booksellers through “highlight lists,” or customized inventory. In the pre-digital age, these sessions were done by flipping through foot-high stacks of publisher catalogs; now they’re often scrolled through on hotel room hi-def TVs. Over the course of the fair, booksellers attend as many as eight appointments. A single appointment can cover as many as 2,000 items. All expect a response: “I’ll take two,” “Seven,” “Pass.” Decisions on how to stock your mid-sized shop with novels, biographies, children’s books, poetry, genre fiction, fine art monographs, memoirs, Harry Potter bobbleheads, restaurant guides, and more: between five and ten thousand of them.
Earlier this spring, I drove to London to speak with reps about this process, which seems among the most obscure links in the long chain of relationships that brings an unfinished manuscript into the hands of readers. My hope was to finesse a way into one of their closed-door meetings—to see which books were stressed, which were skipped, and why. That didn’t happen. “It takes years to build a relationship through honesty,” a Penguin Random House rep told me apologetically. “We can’t risk giving that away.”
What risk? Hurt egos, mostly. If aspiring authors knew how tightly their passion projects would be boxed into snappy ten- to 20-word tag lines—“A creepy coming-of-age story about a blended family,” for example, said of Demi-Gods by Eliza Robertson—and how mercilessly booksellers regarded the retail viability of said works—“I’ll take two”—more might question their chance of establishing a career through sales, let alone striking it rich. That’s not to say that the parties involved don’t care about quality. But there is also the need to build a stock that keeps the stores alive.
Though Browse is a charming anthology well worth the time of anyone interested in the subject—especially those captivated, as I am, by the remarkable similarities that exist among booksellers around the world (it thrilled me to learn how universally sullen many are)—it avoids such hard questions of commerce. Its essays, written by acclaimed writers, mostly explore what novelist Iain Sinclair describes as “the powerful connection between the two trades: the honourable and altruistic profession of providing modestly priced reading matter to a hungry but diminishing demographic and the entitled, despised tribe of scribblers who cough up product.”
As a cultural history, Bookshops addresses matters of exchange on a broader scale—and does so quite brilliantly. Carrión holds the commercial restrictions of a bookstore as its most defining attribute, especially when compared with its other half, its “twin soul”: the library. With characteristic enthusiasm, Carrión explains:
While the Librarian accumulates…the Bookseller acquires in order to free himself from what he has acquired; he sells and buys, puts in circulation. His business is traffic and transit…The Bookshop…is attached to the sinews of the present, suffers with it, but is also driven by an addiction to change.
In the most interesting passages of his work, Carrión explores this dual-minded nature of the eternal bookseller: women and men who see books not only as art (and their collections as canon), but also as fungible objects that occupy valuable space within a limited, perpetually renewing organizational scheme.
It’s not an easy mental position to hold. As the famous porteño bookstore owner Héctor Yánover noted, “A bookseller is the being who is most aware of the futility of a book, and of its importance.” Maintaining that friction seems the great discipline of the trade. The goal: achieving profitability by balancing consumerist demand for reliable goods with works of untested literary merit. For Carrión, bookshops are cultural centres, but above all, they are businesses. Since the institution’s earliest days, the latter has served to maintain the former: We’re reminded that though Denis Diderot’s Encyclopédie was a 25,000-copy bestseller in the mid-18th century, its sales were dwarfed by “tales of chivalry, harvest calendars, horoscopes, gaming rules, recipe books,” and other bits of well-forgotten dross.
Despite insights like these, Bookshops suffers from an overstock of slower-moving items. Rather than a present and well-arranged cultural history, Carrión scrambles his work within a continent-jumping travelogue, wherein he accumulates imaginary stamps from wide variety of stores. There’s charm in Carrión’s rambling, 300-page approach, but there’s tedium, too. The book’s narrative fails to grip onto a meaningful arc; visits to new cities become episodic: After arriving in Budapest, Marrakesh, Lima, Tokyo, San Francisco, and elsewhere, Carrión travels to the best bookshops, comments on their selection, riffs on a number of subjects (censorship, literary readings, paper, etc.), then jumps onward. It is fun the first two trips, duller the third, tiring the fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh. It’s tempting to wonder if Carrión’s efforts would have been better realized as a shorter collection of tightened essays—on libraries and bookshops, the trade of bookselling, and so on, even at the expense of cutting 100-odd pages of asides, local colour, and pop culture commentary.
As Dirda and others show, the spectre of loss haunts much writing about bookstores. Yet when we talk of the threat of losing them, what are we lamenting the potential loss of? Not content—that’s all too easily found online. It is the interactions implicit in the face-to-face commerce of books, the romance of relationships between customers and booksellers. Strip the personal contact and you have Amazon.com—a virtual behemoth that, through its new opening of brick-and-mortar Amazon Stores, may be attempting to conjure a simulacra of the “in-person book buying experience”; take away the commerce and you have libraries, which don’t evoke quite the same sense of discernment through ownership.
Some worry about Amazon Stores’ aggressive expansion into New York, Seattle, and other cities. But these spaces—clinically spare, tended by clerks trained to tout the shops’ limited, face-out, four-plus-star-reviewed stock, all “assembled according algorithm,” according to the New Yorker—shouldn’t concern anyone with a long view of what keeps independent bookstores alive. Despite the hair pulling of alarmists, traditional booksellers have remained as resilient as print books themselves. On his tour of Italy in 1786, Goethe wandered into a well-appointed shop in the university town of Padua:
[T]here were half a dozen people when I entered, and when I asked for the works of Palladio, they all focused their attention on me. While the [bookseller] was looking for the book, the [other patrons] spoke highly of…the work and with the merits of the author.
The magic of this passage is in its familiarity. None of us has experienced anything identical, but I suspect most of us, 230 years later, have encountered something similar. Though we may be entering an age where the community connected with literature—those Goethe identified as the “secular clergy, nobility, and artists”—narrows, the core of the culture remains, as will the intuitions that support it. While in London, I asked booksellers and reps for their perspectives on the current business. A few were cautiously bullish. But most agreed with a veteran of the trade, a woman who, for the past 30 years, has seen a cycle of regional shops close and open: “On the whole,” she said, calmly, “all’s steady.”