Friday, January 18, 2008

Books

I grew up in suburbia. There were many good things about it, but the availability of books wasn't one of them. There were two bookstores in my hometown: Crown and Waldenbooks. Neither one of them was very good. You could find the best sellers and maybe even past titles from the authors of the best sellers, but anything else was hit and miss. They would have Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn but never Life on the Mississippi or The Prince and the Pauper, A Tale of Two Cities and A Christmas Carol but never The Pickwick Papers. By the time I got to high school, Crown had begun to carry Wilkie Collins's two most famous novels, The Woman in White and The Moonstone. One day when I was in the ninth grade, I found No Name at a B. Dalton in the mall ten miles away, and went back obsessively after that in the hopes that they might get Armadale or Basil or anything else by Collins. The summer after my ninth grade year, we dropped my older brother off for his freshman year at a major state university, and I thought that I had died and gone to heaven when I stepped foot into the campus Follett's bookstore because they had not only the textbooks for every course at the university but also the best history section that I had ever seen.

The world of bookselling has changed dramatically since I was a kid. The biggest driver of that change is Amazon, of course. Because of Amazon, it's not possible to buy any book in print from any number of sources and have it in your hot little hands in a few days. It's not a challenge anymore to assemble the complete works of Wilkie Collins, and I can even be picky about the translation of War and Peace I want to read. But not far behind Amazon in influence on bookselling in the United States are superstore chains like Borders and Barnes & Noble. They don't have the breadth of selection that Amazon does, of course, but the selection is still vast. And they have overstuffed chairs and in-store coffee shops so that you can browse the merchandise, sit down, and sample possible selections while sipping on the caffeinated beverage of your choice. It's a great way to spend a lazy Saturday afternoon, for me at least. More than that, it's brought a level of service to formerly bookstore-poor locales that's an order of magnitude or more better than what was common 20 years ago. My hometown now has both a Borders and a Barnes & Noble, and I would wager that I could find six or seven of Wilkie Collins's works in either one of them and could come to a conclusion about the one I might find the most enjoyable in comfort before buying any of them. Even in major cities like Houston, the presence of multiple locations of the major chain superstores has dramatically increased the availability of books of all sorts. Barnes & Noble and Borders are motivated by profit, not altruism, of course, but both of them have improved the quality of my life significantly.

None of my thoughts or observations or arguments about this is particularly original. The reason that I bring them up now is that The Atlantic Monthly has recently made their archives available free of charge for non-subscribers, which means that it's possible again to read my favorite essay of all time published in the magazine. Originally in the July/August 2001 edition, "Two -- Make That Three -- Cheers for the Chain Bookstores" by Brooke Allen makes my case better than I ever could.
What if fifteen years ago someone had suggested a nationwide network of gigantic bookshops, carrying about 150,000 titles each, staying open until 11:00 P.M. or midnight, and offering caf├ęs, comfortable chairs, and public restrooms? And what if these sumptuous emporia were to be found not only in the great urban centers but also in small cities and suburbs all across the country—places like Plano, Texas; Knoxville, Tennessee; and Mesa, Arizona? Wouldn't we have thought that sounded like pure, if unattainable, heaven? Well, that is what the superstore chains—Barnes & Noble; Borders; and Books-A-Million, based in Birmingham, Alabama—have brought us. Why, then, the chorus of disapproval from the cultural elite? Why the characterization, spread by a vocal group of critics, of the chain bookstores as a sort of intellectual McDonald's, a symbol of the dumbing-down and standardization of American life?

She ascribes the opposition to the superstores as being born in snobbery and ignorance, and I think that she makes a good case. To be honest, I don't know how deep the opposition was in 2001; that is, I'm not sure if she created a strawman out of the movie You've Got Mail and a few angry comments in industry publications. Regardless, she effectively makes the case that the book superstores have been a force for good in the United States. The superstores don't just promote bestsellers -- most of the shelf space, including most of the displays, goes to the midlist titles that form the backbone of "serious" books offered for sale. The selection at an average book superstore is as good or better than even the best independent bookstores. The employees, on average, are no more likely to be "you want fries with that?" drones than they are in independent stores. And they exist in places less sophisticated than Manhattan and San Francisco.

What has changed in the six and a half years since this article was published? Well, there are more superstores now than there were then, and the older superstores have begun to show their age. I suspect that Amazon and its online competitors have made life increasingly difficult for Barnes & Noble and Borders -- the discounts mentioned in the article have been gone for years. But the ones that I go to are still packed at all hours of the day, and not just with college students studying in the coffee shop (although that wouldn't be terrible, given the margins on coffee drinks). They have been and are a godsend to me, and I believe that they have been a positive force in American society.

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