Wednesday, September 07, 2011

What if I need something to read?

Borders Books and Music is going out of business. Unless you live in a sealed paper bag, you know about this. In Ann Arbor, a sealed paper bag probably wouldn't be enough to keep from hearing the post-mortem laments and accusations. The latest one, at the Ann Arbor Chronicle, an online-only local journal, interviewed former booksellers and bookshop workers who were speculating about a replacement for the oldest Borders store in the chain. This flagship Borders was the largest retail business in the downtown area (I think). It occupied two floors of space in the building that was previously a department store: another type of business to which change has come more slowly than to its customer base in this constantly changing world.

Businesses seem to hate change, except the a few that figure out how to keep making money, and these get a lot of criticism for changing things. Journalists -- who have their own problems with change, to say the least -- seem strangely unaware of any big picture about the changes in the book industry. I'm especially annoyed by the writers of these screeds that blame people for shopping online, and seem to imply that the end of Borders is some kind of punishment for the people of Ann Arbor who used to buy books in stores but now are among the best book customers of amazon.

Yes, I used to shop at bookstores and now I rarely do, but things have changed a lot since I acquired the bookmarks below from Borders current and former downtown store and from other bookstores (some still in business). I have tons more like them, and I can't imagine how many have been thrown away.


I'm a reader. I need new reading material all the time. These days, I read a lot on my Kindle. Eventually I'll join the other members of my family who have moved on to reading on the iPad. I also read plenty of books. Almost all the magazines and newspapers I read are online, so I read on the computer as well. But the format in which I read has really made less difference to me than the way that I find what I want to read. I think the journalists writing about the book trade do not fully account for this fundamental change in the way that I and many others behave.

As so many journalism pieces have recently pointed out, the original Borders had a very excellent staff who selected and organized the stock especially well, and who could answer questions. At the information desk, they had a year of NYT Book Reviews and other useful material. Indeed, if you remembered vaguely having read a review somewhere, they could often locate it almost by magic, and produce whatever book you almost recalled. Now, if you remember reading about a book, you can use google or the journal's index find such things easily -- if you didn't keep some type of electronic record of what you saw. But that's not all that has changed.

In the days when I was acquiring all those bookstore-ad bookmarks, I found out about newly published books by reading reviews in the New York Times Book Review, the New Yorker, sometimes the Atlantic or the New York Review of Books, and in a few other places. I browsed at the public library, I used the card catalog in the university library and I read through the bibliographies of scholarly works, as well as going to helpful bookstores. At the time, I didn't find these methods cumbersome or time-consuming, but I do now! Changes in libraries, especially online card catalogs accessible from home that tell you if a book is available, made another big change for readers, but I'll stick to talking about bookstores.

My book-review horizon has broadened widely because so many more journals, newspapers, blogs, and cross-referenced catalogs are available to me on my computer. Every week I read reviews not only in sources I used before (they're all online and most have added a great deal of material beyond their print editions), but also in British reviews like the Guardian online, in newly invented reviews like Tablet online magazine, in blogs, and in many other places that weren't accessible before or weren't invented yet.

Besides speeding up and expanding my information on new books, this broad access has allowed me new ways to find old books. For example, thanks to a reference in a blog I read, I recently heard of an article written by W.H.Auden in 1948 about mystery novels. His article was available online. In it, Auden praised the novels of Freeman Wills Crofts -- a new name to me. Soon after, I read two of these on my Kindle, one free, one $2.99. Yes, something like this could have happened 20 years ago, but it would have been very cumbersome and involved microfiche and perhaps a very complicated and maybe expensive search for an out-of-print book!

Here's another contrast, between my experience and that of the Chronicle writer. I recently read a review of the book "1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created." I immediately ordered it from for around half the list price, and the book arrived in a couple of days. Here's the Chronicle writer's experience with the same book:
"On a recent Friday afternoon I spent the better part of an hour browsing her [Nicola Rooney of Nicola's books] shelves for my husband’s birthday presents – I came in for Charles C. Mann’s new '1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created' ... Rooney and two of her staffers spent a good 10 minutes – a long time in a small shop – determined to hunt down one of the three copies of '1493' that were, the computer indicated, in the store. None were to be found. So she took my info and promised to let me know when the next copy came in (it was expected, and indeed arrived, on Monday)."
Yes, this is a great level of service, but it saved neither time nor money for the writer. In fact, she had to drive to the store an extra time, while UPS delivered the book to my front porch. For many reasons I choose to pay the annual fee for free 2-day delivery of all purchases, so I suppose that my total cost should be incremented slightly. But I buy so many books on this deal (as well as watching streaming video for the same fee) that the increment is truly small.

Money isn't everything, but the savings on books one buys online are considerable. I resent the suggestion that I owe it to somebody or something to spend more by buying books in stores. I'm honest about it: if I find a book by browsing in a store and decide to buy it, I don't just write down the reference, but I buy it there. There's much more involved than just browsing. If I want to make a charitable contribution, this isn't it.

Automated recommendations from are often compared unfavorably to a discussion with a live bookseller (or librarian). On the whole, I agree, though I admit that the amazon algorithm sometimes results in good suggestions. There are other services from amazon that I find useful, though. For example, I like the ability to maintain lists of books for future reference. I have several "Wish Lists" which actually represent a selection of just about any books that I might read eventually. If a book is too expensive or rare, I put the library call number in the notes; sometimes I also note where I read about a book; however, no notes are really required, and an amazon user can add books to a wish list with just a click and no typing.

After I read the books, the lists also serve as kind of a record of my reading history -- my family are warned not to use these lists as buying suggestions, as I might have them already. If I had been super organized in the past, of course I could have dreamed up a note-card-and-cross-referencing scheme that would have had this function, but I never was that organized or willing to devote the time to writing out all the information that amazon links to.

The combined capabilities of google searching and google books, online reviews and archives, and the collective force of the amazon catalog just makes it all so easy!

I have no idea if the simultaneous changes in the world of journalists makes it harder for them to see the big picture of the changes in the world of readers (who may also be book buyers). I've seen this gap in quite a lot of the coverage of the demise of Borders. By setting this tone, I think the Chronicle article also set up the type of comments that were made: at this point there are close to 30 of them, mainly along the same lines as the article, worrying about the lack of bookstores. I see a gap in these discussions, with much too much interest paid to book sellers, and not quite enough paid to the question of the new Internet-wide world of finding something to read.


Jens Zorn said...

Mae, you have forcefully stated the situation. It's hard to see how a bookstore can compete when on can so easily make an impulse purchase to a Kindle even while the author is being interviewed on NPR.

Another factor in Ann Arbor is that many of us in the book-buying demographic have thousands of books around the house, books acquired in the heyday of Borders, Shaman Drum, and Afterwords. But, being of a certain age, we are approaching our time when chattels will need to be -- how shall I say it?-- de-accessioned, so we now buy printed books with less abandon than in earlier years.

Jeanie said...

This is an extremely thoughtful post and right on target, to my point of view (though I still can't seem to make the leap to Kindle, Nook or other electronic reader.) I still buy lots of books, but often look for gently used ones at our neighborhood Schuler's (a Michigan-only store, I think; I only know of the Lansing area and Grand rapids stores).

I will say, this week as I looked at the shelves two-deep in some cases, I realized it is time to clear out and let go -- at least of some old friends!

Two other quick things -- the Borders store is the original Jacobson's department store and that was a great store, too! AND, to end with a literary flair, my verification word is Silas!