Tuesday, July 20, 2010
Why my daughter's bookstore will be 10 inches tall
With my daughter, I visited a Border’s in Greensboro, NC, a store I may have autographed books in at one point. It’s hard to remember since most Borders stores are fairly uniform. However, since it had been a few years since I’d been in one, the impressions were really dramatic.
The biggest was my daughter (aged 10, a 99th percentile reading level) immediately leaping toward the kiosk where the Sony Readers were on display. “Kooool!” she said. I was curious myself, but first I had that primary author’s mission of seeing if I had a title in the store. Yup, one copy, with a creased corner. I signed it and put it back (face out, as required by the writer’s union) instead of asking the clerks to put an “Autographed copy” sticker on it as I used to do. The store only had two clerks that I could see, and I didn’t want to divert them from their task of whatever they do in bookstores, such as grinding Joe Muggs coffee.
I then stood back and took in the milieu and compared it to my memories of earlier Borders visits. Lots of space. Aisles were a mile wide, plenty of room to avoid bumping elbows with all those customers who weren’t there. Lots of gift items, toys, CDs, stationary, and squarish stuff that looked like books but on closer inspection were Harry Potter doo-dads, candy, card games, and other idol pleasantries branded like books. My daughter was enamored of a juggling kit, though I couldn’t quite figure out what it was doing near the Middle Grade books. Maybe it had an instruction booklet or something, so it qualified as “literary.”
I checked the fiction section and noticed a lot of uniformity even for a superstore—multiple titles of not-very-many books. I know Borders has always run a pretty tight inventory, but the lack of variety was stunning. The usual suspects had their usual sections, and Rowling still had a shrine despite not publishing in several years. Vampire romance was sprinkled liberally in virtually every genre. Branded and series books were there in droves. I have to admit, it’s much easier for six different books to stand out if they all look the same and take up forty feet of store shelves. It all felt very—corporate. In a way I’d never really noticed before, despite my hundreds of visits to bookstores of all stripes.
So I went back to the Sony Reader. If this display was intended to entice someone to purchase the device, the mission failed. The screen said “Touch operated” but didn’t really operate by touch. Giving it a serious poke triggered a well-produced video showing all the cool things the reader might do if it actually functioned. Taped above the display was “Kobo Reader, coming soon!” Not exactly an enticing endorsement for the poor Sony Reader.
Though the price was knocked down to $149, I am not going to be suckered into any reader until somebody picks a formatting horse and rides it to the checkered flag, or however they end horse races. While buying the “real book” my daughter had picked out, I asked the clerk, “Are people buying e-readers yet?”
“Not much,” he replied. “I’m one of those people who likes to hold a book and turn pages.” Maybe that’s why he didn’t walk the 20 feet to show me how the device worked, if it had actually been working, that is. Don’t quit your day job.
Outside, I asked my daughter about the e-reader, an object she’d heard about but never seen. Definitely neat, definitely something she would possess, the most fascinating object in the store to her. “If I had one of those, I wouldn’t have to pay the extra four dollars (for the hardcover) if the paperback isn’t available.”
Boom. My daughter is smarter than most of the people who run New York publishing houses.
“Touch screen, and you can highlight it, plus you can write notes with a little pen,” she added. I asked her how many of her books she would trade for one of the devices, and she said, “All of them.” With a tone like, “What would I need books for if I had that?”
“I like the smell of paper, but I think this would be easier because you can read any book you want, and you don’t have to carry 3,000 books everywhere you go.” And she didn’t even read the marketing material. Her generation gets it.
I had a tug in my gut upon seeing all those books, including titles by some of my friends. I almost got the urge to “do that again,” go through the long slog and get my books back on those shelves. But, as with those paper-sniffing, page-crinkling faddists out there, it’s only an emotional pull and not a wise business or art move. I am not even sure this Borders would still be around in the 18 to 24 months it would take to grind a book through the system.
I am pretty sure there will be a few of those fancy-schmancy ebook readers around in 18 to 24 months, and I am pretty sure my daughter’s generation will be reading most of their books on them. I am pretty sure the bulk of my future audience will be a digital crowd and won’t be coming to Borders. I am pretty sure I will keep writing. I am pretty sure I will never step into this Borders again.
“All bookstores smell the same,” my daughter said. We drove away. And I didn’t get one single twinge of nostalgia.