Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Brick and Mortar

I used to haunt bookstores. When my sisters would go to the mall, I’d ride with them. As we walked in, we’d agree to meet in an hour and they would go off to do who knows what, and I’d make the rounds to Walden and B Dalton. I spent hours browsing: fantasy, new fiction, entertainment, religion, history, new age, everything except romance and kids. In my college years I’d browse the textbooks at the bookstore, and spend entire afternoons in Barnes and Noble.

At seminary something changed. Instead of stores, I spent hours wandering the library. In those days you could stumble on a 17th century latin edition of Chemnitz with a pigskin cover and rope bindings…and check it out and keep it on the floor of your dorm room! A few years later I went looking for some of these titles and most had been moved to the archives, where they belonged, but they still had tens of thousands of titles, and I was interested in most of them.

During vicarage in Streator, the only library was public, and despite the Carnegie name on the front, the interior was not impressive. Nor did the town boast a bookstore. But Amazon was coming into vogue, and I had a dial-up connection (not too shabby in those days). However, the hours of browsing didn’t translate to web browsers. Amazon has a fantastic selection, and their recommendation system is excellent. But you can’t pick up books and smell them. You can’t read the introductions, look at the index. Despite this, I fell out of the habit of visiting the brick and mortar stores.

Yesterday I took the kids to Hastings–a small market version of Barnes & Noble, and realized what I had been missing. There’s something about all those titles sitting right next to each other, open, accessible, just begging to be picked up and flipped through. The smell of the place, that booksmell, is intoxicating. Yesterday I spent my time corralling children around, but my imagination was in the stacks and displays. Between saying “No, we are not buying that,” and “That one is too expensive”, I scanned the shelves to just get a glimpse of what was next to cookbooks. In a store, everything has equal value, there are no missing images, no bad reviews, no pages featuring out of stock or out of print titles. If you want rankings, bookstores have a few shelves of the bestselling titles, but the rest of the store is blissfully equal. Sure, popular titles are turned out, endcaps boast featured items, but Graham Greene is still right next to Jane Green, and you’d never know that by shopping online.