Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Why I hate big, corporate bookstores--And Introducing Bookstore v. 2.0

Almost every week, while my brother is having his guitar lesson, Dad and I will waft over to the Barnes & Noble in the mall across the way. I rarely buy anything. Dad never does. The place is almost consciously hostile to readers. As I told Dad when we left yesterday: Bookstores shouldn't cater to people, they should cater to readers. Forgive me, but when Joe Blow and Sarah Sap walk into Maplewood Mall, they probably aren't looking for Hemingway, Shakespeare, or anything with the vague appearance of a book. They're looking for Hot Topic, or Abercrombie, or Aeropastale, or American Eagle, or Hollister, or Tommy Hilfiger, or some other kitschy, incredibly expensive chic clothing purveyor. Why do people go into Barnes & Noble at all? They want to giggle in the big puffy chairs, playing with their Ipods in loud voices, while people quietly browsing the shelves pull their hair out.

There was an age when everybody read, because books were the only form of entertainment. These days that is not the case. Not that bookstores are irrelevant, far from it. Those few who read regularly find themselves indoctrinated by the bookstore's political view: Twenty copies of Dawkins' The God Delusion, in a big, shiny stack, but none of Berlinsky's The Devil's Delusion, refuting it. A zillion copies each of Audacity of Hope, Bill Clinton's relative bomb Giving, Al Gore's laughably pretentious The Assault on Reason. Yeah, Al, because global warming is so reasonable. The "Media & Journalism" Section is full of left-wing screeds by hot-air-spewing idiots like Keith Olbermann, John Stewart, Bill Maher, etc, while conservative books, outnumbered 10-1, circle the wagons beneath the gleaming stacks of Dawkins, vainly hoping someone will sift through and find them.

No wonder B&T and Borders are finding themselves in dire financial straits. Who is going to pay $27.95 for a book? DVDs, CDs, and basically all other forms of media cost much less than that.

My solution? Two, actually. First of all, bookstores should not be in malls. People who shop in malls, except those specifically looking for books, do not want books. They want Abercrbombie. Spending $44.95 on some pastel oddity at a brand-name clothing outlet is, apparently, what gets them going. Bookstores should be on shady boulevards, not in suburbs. The staff should all have degrees in English literature, but be solid political centrists. Very diverse racially and religiously, to fit their clientele, but politically non-biased. Then, stylish "coffee shops" inside them should be banned. At what point did we forget that books and food don't mix very well? The shelves should start at the floor, but not reach high enough to need "Staff Only" ladders. The staff are so unhelpful and, usually, scarce in bookstores that this is basically just a prohibition on reaching what are usually the most interesting books. A computer algorythm would largely determine what books would be stocked. Bestsellers, obviously, and books with a certain review from literary and popular journals; but also older books, and more obscure ones. Ideally, it would have an enormous used section, twice the size of the new section. New books should be confined to new books, books published in the last five years; whether first editions or reissues of classics. After this period, books should be consigned to the Used section, and discounted, even though they may not be, in fact, used. They should also have black, old-fashioned name plates, with gold-leaf inscription, "Obscura Books" or "Bratrud & co. Books bought and sold since 3 AD." They should, in fact, have as many old books and fat, worn leather armchairs packed into a space with as much stained and lacquered wood as possible, with lamps the color of heavy cream giving it a literary glow.

This first scenario has as a prerequisite the undiminished power of the book as cultural medium. The printed book. Soon, however, printed books will be consigned to the past, which leads to my second idea: Google has already sworn to put every book online, in a searchable, readable format. I applaud them, but I will take it to the next level. In the future, books should not be a commodity, not even a sick and wounded one like they are today. The power of the mega-publishers should be diminished. Books would become bestsellers on merit, instead of how many advertising dollars are spent on them. So, my idea. A virtual bookstore: looking like an old, wooden bookstore of the kind I described in the last paragraph. It would be vast; eternal in fact. And you could walk or run through it to your heart's content, with your own realistic avatar. You could interact with other readers, and either living staff with access to a digital catalog would help you find books, or there would be a simple search bar with a map function. Type, click, click, and your character walks to the shelf where the book is located. You would then be able to pull the virtual book off the shelf and browse for a set period of time, say fifteen minutes. If you didn't like it, you could put it back on the shelf and move on. If you did, you could take it to the front desk and check it out/ buy it (I'll cover this later.) Immediately upon the book being taken off the shelf, another identical one would take its place.

Who says it has to look like a bookstore? You could choose anything from "British Library" setting to "Mars Planetary Bookstore." Your library could have floor-to-ceiling windows looking out on a space battle or the block where you live. And why does your avatar have to be realistic? Anything without too many fangs and tentacles for the (infinite) bandwidth is fine, as long as its not profane or indecent. Now let's talk money. Books should not be taxed. Ideally, this would be a library and not a bookstore at all. However, authors are unlikely to write for nothing. So, authors would set the price. Too expensive, and no one will buy it, unless it is in high demand. Too cheap, and you wouldn't make a profit. There would be a small charge to put your book the library, and fairly strict guidelines. It would have to meet a certain level of grammatical correctness, literacy, and length. Unfinished books would not be allowed. One copy of each book would exist, but they would be infinitely replacable. Book critics would still have jobs. Each new book would be reviewed by either a critic or reader, althoguh this would not be strictly compulsory. If a new book remained on the shelf too long without being read, it would be put into a fast-track system, and placed in a high-traffic shelf, and bumped on "Also Read" lists and etc. until it was read and reviewed. Only if you are the first reader would you have to review the book (meeting certainl grammatical and literary requirements.) Patrons would log in and be sent to a random part of the library. No one gate would exist, you would appear and disappear in your section. There would be landmarks--the New York Times book review, if it still existed, would have a virtual booth and hawk its picks there, etc. Books would be shelved alphabetically by author's last name, because subject can be subjective, except in special cases. Different parts of the library would be color-coded on the maps and carpeting (or something). So, numbers, letters, and combinations. Ex: "Your search: "Amaranth" by Moses Bratrud" is in the B-Section of minilib section F-960. Color code: Magenta." You could also choose to sort books by subject. When you picked a book off the shelf and clicked on a button, the shelf around you would morph into books on similar subjects, and revert after ten minutes or when you left the section or logged out. This would be a special shelf for you only. If someone were to look for a book three titles down from the one you just selected, it would be there. People browsing by subject would have a revolving "S" over their head.

When you liked a book, there would be a computerized algorythm to compute "Also Read" items. People who read and liked this book also liked etc." This could also include recently-added, never-read books which match yours in certain fields, filled in by the author upon admission to the library.

This library would be administered by computers, except for a small advisory board which would enact small policy changes, barred in the library's (notice how we've moved away from the very term "bookstore") Charter from having too much power or influence. Glitches would be fixed as quickly as possible. Upon every fifth logout you would fill out a virtual survey asking you if you had any problems. These would be categorized by keywords, and sent to computerized glitch-fixers. The computers would also be able to write new code for the new sections of the library, which as you can imagine would be continuously growing. The library makes no decisions. It is impartial. It is perfect. There would also be a translator function, and the biggest man-powered part of the library would ensure that this was carried out correctly. A book would be left in its original language until requested in a different one. Then a computer robot would translate it, it would be double-checked by another computer, and then finalized by a human employee, all within six hours or less.

Also, for a small charge over whatever charge there happens to be, you could get the book bound and printed to your specifications. Hopefully 3d-imaging technology will have developed to the point that nothing so crude as actually printing would be required.

In short, this library is infinite. I must admit, I got the idea from Borges' dystopian story "The Library at Babel," which also deals with an enormous library, but no one knows how to use it. However, this would be the perfect library. Perfectly infinite, infinitely perfect. Is that sacrilegious? Maybe I should never have brought up Babel...

I'm going to go talk to Bill Gates about this--yeah, we're pals from way back. Please, your input. What is good? What needs improvement?


elisabeth said...

Intresting idea Mos. One, question, how would you read the book when you checked it out? On your computer? That seems to defeat to point.
Honsetly I don't like your
"perfect" library. It is all too computer orianted, not book orianted. There is a diffrence between reading something off the computer and snuggling up with a good book you can smell and feel. I really like going to the library because you can get books off the shelve and actuly feel it.
Another thing. I love the idea of coffee shops in book stores. You said yourself you like drinking tea and reading. Same thing. It think it warms up the atmosphere.
True the books at books stores are getting worse and worse and the employees are not very helpful but I love book stores.

Sola Gratia said...

Liz: Well, you could print out these books, ideally; that might be the hardest thing to work out. You'd have to make it economical, but yet timely...Maybe they'll have place-to-place instant transport in the future, like a 3D fax, so you could have it delivered right to your local...library!

Touche. I wouldn't want to read on the computer, you're right. This is a serious snag. Remember 3D transportation technologies from the movie Timeline? If we could get those to work, then libraries could be where they would channel. And you could get a book delivered from anywhere in the world to a library instantly. And then you could go pick it up.

Well, I love reading with tea, that's true. But of course you can't do that online. Hmm...Liz, don't just bring up problems, help with solutions! I'm serious about this! We can make it work!

Libraries are better than bookstores. By far. But bookstores still serve a purpose.

elisabeth said...

Sorry it is in my nature to be critical. I think your solutions are good if you can get them to work but it still seems like a lot of computer time that could be spent browsing a real life library. The computer melts your brain. The library does not...always. All, in all, an intresting idea seeing that our society is so computer driven now. It is just not something I would like all that much.

Susan R. said...

I don't like the computer idea either. Its more fun to actually look at the books , flip through them, smell the pages, all that good stuff.
I'm not big into computers anyway.(thats why I'm on one right now, haha)seriously though, everything these days is getting too computery. seriously i could ramble all day about all this new technological madness. (maybe i'll make my own blog there's an idea!)
anyways, i don't want to take bookstores out of the mall ! thats like the best part of the mall! who cares about american eagle and hollister or whatever? i dont even go in hollister that place is scary! so basically i think bookstores and libraries are perfect already. well except they are too expensive your right about that! and i dont agree that they don't have any good books, well i guess the only books i really even look at are fiction so i wouldnt know about your political books, but, seriously, i don't think it's THAT bad. i see lots of christian books at the bookstore!

elisabeth said...

Amen, Susie, amen!