Greetings from sunny Scottsdale, Arizona, where this morning consists of fresh-squeezed orange juice and the wavering shadows of palm trees falling through my window. So lovely. Yesterday evening I had a wonderful book event at Changing Hands, one of the truly beloved independent bookstores in our country. And now, sitting here, I am thinking about independent bookstores, and how those that have held on this long (many haven't), in the face of changes to the way we buy and read books, have done so due to support from communities who value what they are enough to show it with their time and their money.
The money: you'll likely pay full cover price at an indie, because they can't order in the bulk that allows the behemoths to offer their big discounts.
The time: that it takes to put on your pants (because doesn't everyone sit around pantsless at home?) get in your car or on your bicycle, and go to the store to buy a book, instead of clicking a button and having it delivered instantly to their device, or within a few days to their door.
Is this time and money worth it? What do you get, other than the book in question? Speaking personally:
Bookstores feed my soul. Some places give me a feeling of soul-shrinkage, of crimping down on the edges of my happiness the way you seal off the edges of a hand-pie crust. Squash squash, contain. Banks, for example. Malls. Other places make my soul lighten and grow, flowing out to delight and discover. The ocean, the forest. Bookstores. A perfectly balanced sense of well-being and excitement. Like being in love? A little bit, on a small scale. It is like a little slice of being in love. And that goes for chain stores too. Barnes & Noble stores are beautiful and expansive and full of books. I love them too, and I shop in them too. But I love independents more, because of:
Personality and selection. In the past few days I've been to Changing Hands Bookstore in Tempe, Book People in Austin, and Blue Willow Books in Houston, all as different from each other as can be. I'm lucky to live in a city filled with independent bookstores of all flavors (well, actually it isn't luck at all but choice). Portland isn't a big city, but we've got two independent children's bookstores, numerous small neighborhood bookshops, and quirky places that sell zines and indie graphic novels, even exotic erotica, if that's your thing. And of course we've got Powell's Books, the largest independent new-and-used bookstore in the world. For all tastes, we're covered. Indie stores give me this urge to explore that I just don't get at a Barnes & Noble where consistency is the name of the game. It's like going into a Starbucks versus a cool little coffeehouse where they roast their own beans and bake their own cakes. Sometimes I am on the go and Starbucks is just what I want: the Known Quantity. Or Barnes & Noble, whatever city I may be in, I can enter and know where everything is, no surprises. But ... in life, I want surprises. I very much do not want life to become Known Quantity and Known Quantity Only. I want the thrill of discovery. A new coffee that makes me think thoughts about coffee that I never had before, a cake I will never taste anywhere else, and a style of book selection and display that is a kind of art: a unique expression of individual personality.
At Green Bean Books in Portland, the owner makes hidden dioramas of books for children to discover. She has a mustache vending machine, and a muskrat vending machine. At Powell's, the fairy tale section in the children's area is an entire aisle of unknown treasures, new and used, old and new, glittering with possibility that makes you want to examine every single spine because you have no idea what might be there, no more idea than if you were sifting through a flea market in Paris.
Sifting through, discovering. I love bookshelves, and stacks of books, spines, typography, and the feel of pages between my fingertips. I love bookmarks, and old bindings, and stars in margins next to beautiful passages. I love exuberant underlinings that recall to me a swoon of language-love from a long-ago reading, something I hoped to remember. I love book plates, and inscriptions in gifts from loved ones, I love author signatures, and I love books sitting around reminding me of them, being present in my life, being. I love books. Not just for what they contain. I love them as objects too, as ever-present reminders of what they contain, and because they are beautiful. They are one of my favorite things in life, really at the tiptop of the list, easily my favorite inanimate things in existence, and ... I am just not cottoning on to this idea of making them ... not exist anymore. Making them cease to take up space in the world, in my life? No, please do not take away the physical reality of my books.
I get it. Kind of. I get ebooks. I get the convenience, the lack of clutter (I guess, book clutter is the only kind of clutter that I love), and I have a tablet, though I admit it's a crappy one, kind of the VW rabbit of tablets (without the charm of a VW rabbit), and I have used it, though rarely, and mostly for manuscripts. Once, in a welter of desperation for a certain title, I ordered it delivered and read it that way, and after I was done, it was as if it didn't exist anymore. If I love a book, I want it. I want it sitting there so I can pick it up and leaf through it and maybe just hold it. If I don't love a book? Okay, I don't need it sitting around, but my pursuit in book-buying and book-having is for books that I love. Every time I open a book, it is with the hope that I will love it and be transported and be enlarged, that a new room will be built onto my mind, or perhaps even a wing, filled with wonders and whispers. I'm not just trying to pass the time. Books are more to me than that. They are more to me than ether.
On top of which, ebooks do huge harm to the bookstores that I love. But it is the way things are going, and that's not going to change. If you love ebooks, I'm just glad that you love books. Or, well, that you love stories, novels, because "books" to me means the physical object. I am glad you are reading. I know there are many people reading more than they ever have because of the convenience of tablets, so that is a plus. It's a big plus, but not a pure one, because in making bookstores obsolete, we are damaging ourselves, taking away the possibility of discovery, and the amazing communities that exist within and around independent bookstores.
When I think of the future, of the libraries that will never be built, the shelves that won't be filled, the spines that won't be printed, the absence of the physical clutter of stories to surround the childhoods of our grandchildren, I kind of want to cry. When I think that they won't have bookstores to go to, the candyshop wonder of all those marvelous books on shelves, waiting to be handled, to be read and treasured and kept ... Oh dear. I am very sad. I am of the old guard, and I cannot embrace this new technology, not for what it is but for how it will change and demolish one of the institutions dearest to me in life. The world is barreling in this direction -- towards this shiny sci-fi future -- that lacks ... texture. Already our grandchildren will never find boxes of letters in our attics, bound with faded ribbon. We have killed letter-writing (some people can barely hand-write anymore, for any length of time; our hands don't have the muscles for writing with pens anymore!!), and we have killed music stores, and we're out to kill books too. It doesn't mean we won't still have stories; we will, in this there-but-not format, but to me, what we are losing is a very great thing. It has begun, and I think that in some places there are enough of us who love books and bookstores that the stores will continue, and publishers will keep printing books on paper for a while longer, hopefully a good long while, hopefully the rest of my life. But ... the rest of my daughter's life? And her children's lives?
Well. The world changes, it's always changing. I can't know what it will be like in fifty years, I shouldn't go getting all sniffy. I'm not going to exhort you to turn the tide against ebooks, or anything like that. For everyone who is reading on tablets: sincerest thanks for reading. Period. Truly, I am every bit as grateful for every single sale of my books in e-format as on paper. As a writer, I just hope people will read my books in any and every way that it is available, as many people as possible. As a person and a bookstore-lover, I just don't know what to think. Maybe I worry too much! Here's Maurice Sendak on the subject:
Ha ha ha!!!
Tell me what you think. Am I being crazy? Do you love your device? Can you make me feel better? I want to hear from you!
And before I go, what I am reading right now:
On airplanes and in hotels as I travel (without my "device" by the way, but with three mass market paperbacks tucked into my bags) I am reading:
The Liveship Traders trilogy by Robin Hobb. You guys, it's soOoOoOoOo goOoOoOod!! So good, so delicious, so fantastic, so well written, so immersive. LOVE. I've never read Robin Hobb before, and I'm ashamed to admit that when I heard her name I assumed she was a man because so much epic fantasy is by men, and when I found out she's a woman, I was a bit thrilled. Not that it matters, but YAY WOMEN FANTASY WRITERS! And YAY that she has so many more books waiting for me to read! I'm into book 2 above, The Mad Ship, of this fantastic trilogy, and it is growing deeper and more wonderful by the page. The essential, wonderful premise of The Liveship Traders is that in this world, there is an exceedingly rare kind of magical wood called wizardwood (of mysterious provenance) which has been used in the building of a class of ships called "liveships," that are passed down through generations in select seafaring families. Once three generations of captains have died aboard a liveship, the figurehead will "quicken" and come to life, and the ship will be sentient and capable of things no other ships are, such as navigating the mystical Rain Wild River, the depths of magic (and horror) of which are still only hinted at as far as I've read. The story set-up, so marvelous, is that Althea Vestrit is the daughter and rightful heir to one such ship, and is cheated of her inheritance at the very moment that her ship quickens and comes to life. Due to the grasping greed of others, the Vivacia must go on her maiden voyage as a quickened lifeship -- a very vulnerable time -- without the strength of her blood kin to guide her, and Althea must make her own way in a world where women are no longer welcome as sailors. Meanwhile, a quixotic pirate captain is making a name for himself by capturing slave ships and freeing the slaves, an abandoned liveship, notorious for murdering his family at sea, is forging a bond with a mysterious wood carver, sea serpents on the move are searching for the source of their ancient memories, and many more Wondrous Things.
From the wood carver above mentioned:
"I think there is in the heart of man a place made for wonder. It sleeps inside, awaiting fulfillment. All one's life, one gathers treasures to fill it. Sometimes they are tiny glistening jewels: a flower blooming in the shelter of a fallen tree, the arch of a small child's brow combined with the curve of her cheek. Sometimes, however, a trove falls into your hands all at once, as if some greedy pirate's chest spilled before an unsuspecting beholder. Such were the dragons on the wing. They were every gem color I know, and every possible shape one could imagine."
(from The Mad Ship, by Robin Hobb)