It’s late 2012, and the long-promised death of print (predicted somewhere on a Mayan calendar, I’m told), has yet to happen. I live in Seattle, birthplace of Amazon and the Kindle (full disclosure: I worked for Amazon twice, once from 1998-2000, again from 2004-2007), and yet I still see people leaning against bus stop posts absorbed in paperbacks. I’m lucky to live in a town that boasts two large independent bookstores—Elliott Bay Book Company and University Bookstore—as well as a variety of smaller independents that cater to various neighborhoods and niche interests. On 15th Street, a couple blocks from my apartment, a sign posted in front of a yarn bombed house promises that it’ll be the future home of Ada’s Technical Books. On weekends, my girlfriend and I frequently hunt for treasures at the city’s fine used bookstores—Half Priced Books and Magus for starters. This is a fantastic city in which to be a reader.
Part of me wonders if my belief that printed books will endure is just a result of my upbringing and habits. But then I see my kids and their friends absorbed in straight-up books made of wood pulp and I figure that the format is safe for at least another generation, at which point they’ll pass their love of holding a book in their hands to their own children.
Every time a new technology is introduced, a fair number of people start thinking about it in terms of replacement. Cars will replace trains. Television will replace radio. CDs will replace vinyl. MP3s will replace CDs. At the turn of the century, in the most zeitgeist-capturing moment of hype I can think of, some even believed that Dean Kaman’s seqway scooter would replace walking.
But of course we still have trains, radio (even 100+ year-old AM radio), vinyl LPs, CDs, and people who walk. Small presses still pump out chapbooks on letter presses. Even the oral tradition is alive and well in readings and events.
Then again, that rosy picture comes from a guy who lives in a city frequently ranked as one of the country’s most livable, where people take pride in their voracious reading habits. When I venture an hour to the north, to Skagit County, I’m struck by the absence of new bookstores. Growing up, I made visits to Scott’s Bookstore part of my weekly routine. Now the space where that store used to be is an antique mall. There’s a new bookstore in LaConner, but I’ve heard rumors that it’s closing. There isn’t even a Barnes and Noble at Cascade Mall. My old employer Easton’s Books, the finest used bookstore I have ever seen, still does brisk business, thanks to the knowledge and fastidiousness of its owners, Dave and Diana Cornelius. But the fact that I can’t buy a new book from a brick and mortar store in Mount Vernon has me spooked.
What’s happening, I think, is that independent bookselling is contracting into the cities. And while readers who live in small towns and rural places like the one I grew up in will continue to have access to books via the Web, what gets lost is the serendipity of getting lost in a store filled with books. I know, I know. I too have read those hand-wringing missives full of nostalgia for the scent of a just-printed hardback. And my adolescence was also spent in some pretty crappy brick and mortar bookstores, too—B Dalton and Waldenbooks come to mind. I don’t necessarily think it’s such a bad thing that those poorly-curated stores went out of business.
Still. I can’t help but think that we’ll always need to buy books in physical reality and hold our books in our hands. And that unexpectedly running into people we know is one of the best things about being alive.