Sunday, February 07, 2010

Clouds in my Coffee...

Sing it, Carly —"You're so vain..."

The last few weeks have brought a hailstorm of controversy regarding ebooks and the future of traditional publishing, and more than a few writers, publishers, and agents weighed in with their take on the situation. And of course Steve Jobs had to add his inadvertent 2 cents by releasing a shiny new iPad stacked with a whole now ebook eden called the iBook Store. Worries about the whole digital takeover are nothing new, but they do seem to be gaining affirmation daily. We can talk about this as a revolution, an evolution, an opportunity, an awakening—whatever it takes to put a positive spin on things (not that a positive spin is wrong). But there are a host of old-timers who will cling to their paper-, cloth-, or leather-bound books until the cyber-police pry them from their cold, dead hands. But I'm not going to ask if the death knell for traditional books has been sounded. I'm not going to speculate on how long our dear pile of tangible pages has left in this world. It's all just a matter of time and technology anyway. No, what is pressing hard on my guts right now is more than books;  it's the atmosphere, the community, the metaphysical vibe that sustains my cultural angst. That's right, I'm talking about the fate of the physical bookstore/café.

What's all the kerfuffle? I think Scott Westerfield offered a brilliant summary of the the whole Amazon/MacMillan clash in his blog. Frankly, I'm behind MacMillan on this one, and not just because I'm a writer. It's not about panic or unfair wages at the moment, it's about the future. And who isn't looking towards the future, especially now?

Which brings me to my main point: the future of my beloved local literary community, aka the bookstore.  Anyone who knows me knows what a rough year 2009 was.  You also know that I have moved to the "armpit of the South" where the word culture refers to that crust of black mold in your bathroom drain and nothing more.  When I was in Pennsylvania, I relished my hours at my  local Barnes & Nobles or  Borders Book Store.  These were meccas, holy places of meditation and inspiration, not to mention 15 million-calorie coffee drinks.  Some days I would just go and peruse the shelves, whether I bought anything or not.  Just being among books, surrounding by them, steeped in their hot-of-the-press scent somehow brought both a sense of peace and a powerful invigoration. I'd park myself on the floor next to the YA book stacks and pluck a few things off the shelf and pore over them for a couple of hours. least once in a while I can drive the hour and a half to Tallahassee to partake.

Often I would meet friends there where we would scour the "new in paperback" shelves or check out the latest toys for bibliophiles.  We'd grab a cup of hot frothy liquid sin and gab about whatever topic floated up out of the stacks around us.  Sometimes it was personal trials, sometimes it was questions about writing.  The best part was the eavesdropping.  Oh, admit it.  Everybody does it.  We'd catch a snippet of a conversation and couldn't help but get caught up in the topic ourselves.  Or maybe it was research for my latest book.  A character study, perhaps.  There was plenty to grab hold of and love in that atmosphere.  

The bookstore has always been a favorite date spot for me and Ghost Hunk as well.  Sometimes we would get a babysitter and head out for dinner and a movie, but inevitably dinner would run too long and we would miss the early showing.  If we had enough energy (and cash for the babysitter), we would just catch the later flick and spend the time in between at the bookstore.  Sometimes, the bookstore WAS the date.  We would wonder around together at first, sharing jacketflap blurbs and wishlists.  Then we would wander off into our own favorite nooks and get lost for a while.  Me in the YA section or the Paranormal stacks, Ghost hunk in the Graphic Novels or the Cultural Studies section.  When one of us found something exciting or had a sudden breakthrough, we would weave in and out of the shelves and bewildered or bemused patrons until we found the other and share our epiphany.  Ah...bonding over books.  Now that's a date!  I, more often than Ghost Hunk, would wonder around with an armful of books, vainly wishing I could buy them all, but one by one they found their place back on the shelf and the two of us would leave feeling wistful and refreshed.

My kids have been raised on four main literary food groups:  Picture books, Middle Grade, YA, and of course...creative bookstore merchandise.  I took them to story times where they cut their teeth on the likes of Eric Carle or Laura Numeroff or  Sandra Boynton (those are the ragged, spit-covered copies stuffed in the back—just warning you).  I've watched them graduate from mouthing chunky board books with their toothless little gums to recommending their favorite reads to hapless strangers in the book store as well as to their friends.  They learned patience and reverence for literature.  And we bonded, mother and child, teacher and student, philosopher and apprentice.

Yes, books are the key, but the house is where they live and where we thrive.  While I, like so many others, am captivated by the iPad and it's shiny new iBook store, I am also aware that a new model for the literary world is on the horizon.  And it is not necessarily a bad thing.  It's just inevitable change.  But is the romance of the book world, the sense of community, the awe-inspiring temple to ideas that is the physical book store on its way to extinction?  I don't know.  Perhaps the cyber café will take its place—vast palaces of caffeine and WiFi connections where people will gather and download ebooks.  It just seems so antiseptic, so isolated.  Will my tea and coffee taste the same in cyberspace?

A brave new world, indeed...


  1. I couldn't agree more, Mary Ann. Visiting bookstores is my favorite leisure time activity. I can't imagine anything replacing it. I guess there's always the library, if your community values it enough to fund it well.

  2. It's exactly this quality of experience that a virtual bookstore can't offer. I absolutely believe that ebooks will have their place (and storytelling may actually evolve in a new direction to take advantage of that environment) but physical books and the places they are found--bookstores and libraries--are not going to be eclipsed.

  3. I found your blog completely by accident a while back. I checked back today and saw this post. I cannot tell you how I am drooling over the iPad. I love to read and the thought of having all my books in my hand wherever I go...ooooh so enchanting. However, me and mine do enjoy a "date" at the bookstore as well. I do enjoy holding hands and walking through the stacks. We also frequent the library as our home is small and had to realize that we could not own as many books as we would like (again, here is where the iPad is enchanting). But there is something that is just "right" about holding a book. It can say things to people for you as well. For instance, I'm busy reading and don't care for conversation now, or it can be a conversation starter I suppose (Oh, I read that book isn't better than the last one by that author). I have downloaded books to my iPhone while waiting in the doc's office, it doesn't have the same effect on people as a real book. My daughter loves to read as well. 11 years old and reading classics on my iPhone because they are free and can be read while we are driving or waiting. I don't know what techonology holds for writers but what I do know is that for me it offers the great escape at my fingertips, and I can change my mind about what I'm reading on vacation in an instant. Although, I do have a list of my favorite books that I buy in Hardback. The ones that you know you want to read over, tell your friends about. Thanks for writing, we read as much as we can.

  4. I've been thinking about this a lot. Partly personal as my DP wanted to buy me an e-reader for Christmas. Oh how I wanted one, but I talked her out of it as I felt I hadn't done enough research yet. I want to pick the right one! Like others who've posted, I love, love the thought of being able to carry a virtual library around with me, but I certainly don't want to contribute to the demise of book stores. Of course it doesn't have to be an either / or situation. This is one of those things that will have to shake out over time, and it will be interesting to see how it all unfolds.

  5. I like the name of your blog.

    -Broken Tree Coffee


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