One Thing That Really Is Dying: Bookstores

August 18, 2010

Couple days ago the cover of Wired announced the death of the web. And there was much hemming and hawing about things being declared dead while they continue to thrive.

But I do know one definitely dying thing in my corner of the universe: bookstores.

I used to haunt used bookstores (a college student habit in Portland, home of the awesomest used bookstore) but have gradually morphed into the worst type of customer – the one that merely browses, pets the cat, checks out the magazine rack, only to leave without buying anything. I now usually look up the price of every potential purchase on Amazon, sometimes via the iPhone, to see if the price is cheaper there (it inevitably is). I’ve even placed the occasional order for a book directly in the store.

Yeah, so by voting with dollars, people like me are to blame, but I bet you do it to.

And recently, I’ve come to the decision to buy as few hard cover books as possible – and go all-digital. I haven’t settled on Kindle or iBooks, but it’s one or the other. Yep, am abandoning the romance of hard cover books and the big wall library. It’s not personally satisfying to have a wall of books I read once or twice years ago and have never looked at again. They take up too much space, are heavy, and pretty wasteful, really. They’re all going away in the months to come. Yes, I am moving in the direction of this digital minimalism thing.

This pattern has precedence in music and movies. I once had a pretty big collections of both CDs and DVDs. Almost a decade ago, I ripped all the CDs and put the physical media into storage. I think I’ve looked at those discs perhaps twice in the past ten years. Meanwhile, purchases of CDs were replaced with iTunes. About a year ago, started doing the same with DVDs – sold the collection, and am now subsisting on Netflix until the day they’re all available through Netflix Watch Instantly. I have a hard drive with enough ripped movies to literally last a lifetime. Meanwhile, two Blockbuster video stores closed in our area recently. Nothing has filled their place. (Barnes & Noble = Blockbuster). I think there used to be a Tower Records around here too, don’t even remember when it closed.

So while I feel a little sad for the way a good bookstore adds color to a neighborhood, business trends cannot be ignored. Physical books may eventually hit that point where they’re a curiosity, like an old VHS tape or LP record. It will take years if not decades, but seems inevitable.


  1. Rob O. says:

    I wasn’t heartbroken in the least to bid my local video stores farewell many years ago when I was an early adopter of Netflix. But bookstores? I’m raging against the dying of that light.

    For myself, I’m stuck in the analog world of dead-tree books. My eyes just don’t hold up to the electronic screen flicker nearly as readily as they do paper print. But even beyond that, I’m comfortable with the tactile, low-tech experience of traditional printed material. I read LOTS of emails, PDFs, blogs, etc. during the day but I’d rather retire to a comfy chair with a ‘real’ book after that.

    For my 4 yr old son too, I’m still strongly in favor of ‘real’ books. He’s a voracious reader – well ok, I read aloud and he follows along – and again, the tangible page-turning element is significant in this experience. Between the page flips, we’re talking about what just happened and discussing what’s to come. And given that much of our reading is done in the dimly lit, pre-bedtime, cozy confines of a cushy recliner next to his bed, paper seems the best fit – I suspect the bright light from an ebook would be a jarring contrast in that setting and might not be especially conducive to the whole “winding down for bedtime” process.

    Earlier this Summer, we went to the library and got my son his first, very own library card. That too, is a novel experience: he loves taking well-read books back in, thanking the lady at the counter for the loan, and finding the next set of books to take home. I remember from my childhood how the library was kind of a magical place and I’m working hard to foster that same amazement for my little guy.

    • Good to hear your experience. Emotionally I am with you, but when I look objectively at my own behavior, books are going away in our lives.

      I still am holding on to some books that have sentimental value or a lot of pictures (take my heavy coffee table Beatles Anthology book). But the text heavy ones are going away, and I don’t think many new ones will be added in the future.

      Love libraries, and have several books I’m trying to work through right now, but even there the conflict is in evidence. It seems picking up the iPad and fiddling with it – even late at night – is pushing physical books aside.

      Probably at the end of the day books won’t totally go away, but the library will get a lot more use (as it doesn’t cost anything) and any purchased books will be digital.

  2. macmcrae says:

    I used to devour books daily when I was in high school and college. But now when I read it is almost always just the news on the web and audiobooks. I blame the web and my 160 gig ipod for this. It is far too easy to find free material online. Also when it comes to reading with an ipad I find it is too distracting to use as a reading device. I would much rather be playing angry birds or surfing the web or listen to gibbon and painting than I would try to read a book on the ipad. The printed word is losing the battle for my attention.