10.22.18: a rebel alliance of quality content
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bookstores are aliiiiiive
a disagreement with stephen king
by jael mchenry (@JaelMcHenry)

I suppose it's fitting that the scariest thing I've ever read from Stephen King showed up just before Halloween this year. It wasn't one of his books, incidentally. And he didn't even mean it to be frightening. It was a brief line, almost a throwaway, in an interview with the Wall Street Journal (not scary) about e-publishing (not scary) where he made the following statement about bookstores:

What's going to happen to bookstores?
The bookstores are empty. It's sad. I remember a time when Fifth Avenue was lousy with bookstores. They're all gone.

I don't dispute any of his statements about the increasing popularity of e-books. They're convenient and adaptable and they satisfy the American appetite for instant gratification. And it follows that more e-book purchases mean fewer bookstore purchases.

But bookstores are absolutely, positively, completely alive.

Especially in New York City, which he seems to be addressing directly with his comment about "Fifth Avenue." The remarkably thriving independent bookstore scene in NYC was covered recently in New York Magazine, and it's nearly impossible to ignore the dozens of readings every month these bookstores, and their chain counterparts, host. When Greenlight Bookstore in Brooklyn marked its first anniversary with a party, the store was absolutely packed. Readings from authors from Kurt Vonnegut to Gary Shteyngart to Sara Gruen draw audiences of literally hundreds of people, every one of whom has chosen to express their interest in that author by spending time in a physical bookstore, whether or not they're buying a physical book.

Dead? Gone? Empty?

It's true that many bookstores have closed, both longstanding independents like Stacey's and chain locations like the Barnes & Noble near Lincoln Center (although any analysis of that particular store's balance sheet has to acknowledge how much the development situation, and therefore the rents, have changed in that neighborhood since 1995.) It's true, obviously, that Borders is in financial trouble. It's true that bookstores are taking a long hard look at their business model in the face of changing times.

It is not true that the bookstores are "all gone", and it scares me that a major American author whose sizable fortune was built on products sold in bookstores would give them up for dead so easily.

Actually, Amazon has done more to kill bookstores than e-books ever have, but since Stephen King (as he mentions in the article) made a quick $80K from an novella that took three days to write by making it available through Amazon exclusively for Kindle, maybe he doesn't want to criticize that distribution channel.

But even with Amazon, even with electronic publishing, even with the internet and TV and movies and every little downloadable thing competing for attention, bookstores are still out there. Hosting readings. Holding events. Filling their shelves with books you might want, and ordering other ones upon request when it turns out you might want something they don't have. Providing a place to drink coffee and use wi-fi and wait for your friends and just browse away a half-hour on a Saturday afternoon just because.

Books are part of it. Books are the core. But if you've ever done more in a bookstore than just purchase a book, you understand that their purpose goes well beyond that transaction.

Then again, maybe it's not too surprising, that someone could give up bookstores for dead when he says this about physical books:

What about people who love physical books?
I'm one of them. I have thousands of books in my house. In a weird way, it's embarrassing. I recently downloaded Ken Follett's "Fall of Giants," but I also bought a copy to put on the shelf. I want books as objects. It's crazy, but there are people who collect stamps, too.

He's already calling them things of the past. He loves them, apparently, but to use "crazy" and "embarrassing" is a pretty clear signal. No wonder, if the book is a relic, that the places where we find them are museums. In his mind, anyway.

In my mind, this is the only possible truth: bookstores are not dead. Bookstores are alive.

But it is all too easy to contribute to their demise by pronouncing them already dead, as if there's nothing you or I or Stephen King himself could do about it.

They're not dead or gone or empty. And they won't be, unless we let them.


Jael is tired of being stereotyped as just another novelist/poet/former English teacher/tour guide/"Jeopardy!" semifinalist/bellydancing editor-in-chief with an MFA who was once an overachieving oboe-playing alto newspaper editor valedictorian from Iowa. She was also captain of the football cheerleading squad. Follow me on Twitter: @jaelmchenry

more about jael mchenry


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published: 10.5.09

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russ carr
11.3.10 @ 12:16p

The Library of Congress would not look nearly so impressive if it were reduced to an iPad and a couple of hard drives on a desk somewhere, even though the technology exists to reduce it to that very common state. So, too, with bookstores.

Good bookstores are like grocery stores, or restaurants; you may go in with certain expectations, but half the fun is in getting lured off in another direction, picking up something you spied out of the corner of your eye, sampling a few pages of this or that. Reading excerpts at online book sellers is, to me, like walking through Sam's Club, where you've got people hocking deep-fried macaroni-and-cheese bites and frozen pizza samples at you; you're stuck with someone else's choice about what you get to try.

Bookstores have an inherent element of surprise, something that a spook-spinner like King should appreciate. Walk into an independent bookseller's shop, and you never know what you'll find on the shelves, revealing interesting insights into the owner's personality, and that of his patrons. Books you would never have thought to look for, but that you suddenly must peruse. You might open a volume in a used bookstore to find a Christmas wish from forty years ago - or an autograph from the author - scrawled inside the cover. You might look up on a shelf and be startled by the store's cat staring at you, judging your literary tastes.

There's far too much soul in our bookstores, even if there are few souls visiting them. Perhaps someone should kidnap the befuddled Mr. King and chain him in the front window at Prairie Lights...

mike julianelle
11.4.10 @ 7:12p

The way I see it? The dude's plain wrong. You're both right. But what did we expect? King's never written a good ending in his life.

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