What Salon Doesn’t Get about Bookstores (and Slate’s Article)

The other day I blogged about Slate’s article, Don’t Support Your Local Bookstore. Salon has replied to Slate’s article, which I think severely misses the point of the article – which is that unlike local culture which is produced locally, the books available in bookstores are the same everywhere you go and thus the perennially snobbish should stop pretending bookstores foster a local literary culture in the same way that your local organic food market does.

The general thrust of Salon’s piece is that bookstores foster local culture, period, by becoming a focal point for community congregation.

Unlike almost any other kind of retail establishment, bookstores operate as quasi-public neighborhood trusts that give city dwellers more than they receive in return. Like art galleries, they’re a free-of-charge indoor urban venue where you can make yourself comfortable without being expected to eat something, drink something, or even buy something.

In this way, bookstores are superior to your local Whole Foods:

No one goes to Whole Foods just to soak up the atmosphere — everyone’s ultimately there to buy quinoa and ramps. Bookstores, on the other hand, function as communal spaces, which makes them valuable urban amenities.

But this, I think, misses the point of the Slate piece. The two articles are talking about different aspects of bookstores, talking past each other. Slate’s point was not that there are no similarities between farmer’s markets and bookstores, nor that bookstores don’t foster local culture. The point was that bookstores of any stripe, to remain profitable, are not really independent as they claim. They are simply the local peddlers for the literary offerings of the Big Six multinational corporations that dominate book culture. The point had nothing at all to do with independent bookstores existing as physical locations, and more to do with the reality that independent bookstores aren’t really independent. The bookstores might exist locally in space and time, but they sell the same stuff as Barns and Noble.

In short, Slate’s piece was an indictment to independence-in-name-only; his support for Amazon and the digital economy includes support for the burgeoning e-book revolution – possibly the piece’s greatest crime from the perspective of the literati who have come out in defense of the status quo once again. The most offensive thing about Slate’s article was its mere suggestion that online and e-book shopping would encourage and support the independence of authors and writers from the domination of the Big Six publishers and cultivate the true literary equivalent of a farmer’s market.

There is nothing to suggest that physical books or bookstores will ever completely disappear. As I suggested in my previous post on this subject, if bookstores were equipped with Print-on-Demand technology, people could come in, shop for books, purchase them, even order up printings of the books, browse the shelves, sit and read, get coffee, chat with others, all while they wait for their books to be printed and completed. It will necessitate change, sure. Bookstores might have to reduce their size by half or more, but change was going to come regardless. Better to have smaller physical bookstores with infinite shelves than no bookstores with no shelves at all.

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