When I went to school at ASU, finding books wasn't difficult. I went to Changing Hands Bookstore in Tempe, Arizona. I rode there on my bike, spent a few hours and then rode home with a backpack full of books. When I moved to Los Angeles, I found books at Sisterhood Bookstore, all three Duttons and my favorite bookstore in Los Angeles, Midnight Special at 1318 Third Street Promenade. That's where I did my first reading for my first book, Blue Air, and over a hundred people showed up. When Red Hen Press published Misread City, a collection of essays on literary Los Angeles, edited by Dana Gioia and Scott Timberg, I contributed an essay on venues across the city including Midnight Special, the Krueger Art Gallery in Pasadena, Skylight Books and many others. My husband's and my entire romance played out in bookstores.
When he and I took driving trips up and down the coast, we would arrive in town early enough to visit the bookstores in Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo, Santa Cruz and San Francisco. We spent hours exploring the shelves and finding treasures. There was the year we discovered Calvino. The year we started reading Alice Munro. The year I found Anne Carson. The year he found Ben Marcus. At those bookstores, you had the intersection that every writer wants to see. You have the reader/young intellectual in a space where there are books, and there is the cashier ready to take your money. That's all you need: Reader, books, money in reader's pocket, cashier. The transaction is complete.
Where is that transaction happening now? My daughter is 23, finishing her Masters in English. Where is she, a young intellectual, going to discover books? Her kind of books. We all have our kind of books, but we read diversely. I bought a Malcolm Gladwell book at the airport, but I also love novels, adore poetry, am a big fan of short stories. Most of us read off different shelves. What makes most people want to buy a book for pleasure is picking it up, holding it, turning the pages, feeling the cover, smelling that new book smell. We've come to substitute hearing about a book, and then ordering it from Amazon. But when you receive the book, there's that pleasure of opening it, turning the pages.
There's another problem with finding your book. When we buy music or listen to music, we have iTunes or Pandora to tell us what we might like. I call my Pandora, Nina Simone radio and they fill me with in with who else I might like. That's what iTunes does as well. According to Bill Tipper at Barnes and Noble, what Netflix does is different because it is based on your continuing to rate what kind of movie you like. What Amazon does is even less helpful because it's based on book buying which can sometimes be random. You might buy lesbian erotica and cookbooks, but that isn't going to be true of everyone. I edited a book, Devil's Punchbowl, a collection of essays on California. It's taught at a number of different universities so when you look on Amazon, it will tell you that if you like it, you might like the grammar book Rules for Writers as well. When I look up Margaret Atwood, it doesn't tell me to buy other post apocalyptic novels like her later books or other feminist books like her early books, instead it tells me that I might like other books by Margaret Atwood.
There was a time when I enjoyed going to the Barnes and Noble on Ventura Boulevard. They had a great fiction selection, and the staff were helpful. Not as much poetry as I would have liked, but it was a good store. Now there's not a Barnes and Noble or an indie bookstore in easy driving distance. My students still give me Barnes and Noble gift cards, but there's no place to go with them except BarnesandNoble.com. I continue to like five things about Barnes and Noble:
1. They keep stores open in key cities. Maybe because they're a big enough corporation, they can afford some ups and downs.
2. Those bookstores create a meeting place for book lovers. According to Everlasting Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, one of my favorite movies, it might be a place book lovers can meet other book lovers and after the store closes, head off for some recreation with that like minded individual.
3. They are much easier to work with than Borders ever was. Borders' business practices left much to be desired.
4. They have a website which creates a conversation about books. If you want to read key conversations with exciting new writers, I highly recommend BarnesandNoble.com. There are reviews and recommendations based on curating by educated readers rather than a buying algorithm.
5. They are creating a way of buying books that gives you ideas of what else you might like. That's because the people choosing the comparable books are people. They read and they know what they like and what you might like. It's like that shelf at your favorite bookstore that gives you staff picks.
I'm going to take out my magic spyglass and tell you about the future. In the future, ebooks won't be sold on Nooks or Kindles. The reason is that we only want one device in the future or at most two and the one should have the capability of being a toy. We would prefer one device. If two, one will be an iPhone/Droid, the other will be an iPad/ tablet. I think we'll have tablets which will be cheap, and can be used for watching movies, listening to music, playing games, reading books and the newspaper and magazines, and, well, everything. We don't want to have three devices. A laptop/pad, a phone and some sort of e-reader is really overload.
I don't think the end product is going to be an Apple product. My students tell me that the reason Droids are better than iPhones is that they come jail broken and you have to jail break an iPhone. But that's not the main reason. The reason I wouldn't bet on Apple products is that I don't think Apple likes their customers. But don't believe me, read CNN's ten reasons to hate Apple.
The big conversation about books we will like is happening online hence the popularity of sites like Good Reads and Bookslut. Those conversations will continue and many of them will lead to the purchase of real books. We'll still have books and hammocks to read them in. As an editor, I want readers to be able to find our books, and I hope the conversation becomes more active and more focused so we can find the books we love, the ideas we want to swim in, the language we want to speak. It's complicated to predict the future. We all want to live in interesting times, and indeed it is the best of times and the worst of times. I walked into the Barnes and Noble office this morning and thought about where the book universe was going. Barnes and Noble is a tenant in the Google building.
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