Farewell to An Old Friend: The Bookstore

Let me tell you a sad story.

I was visiting a friend of mine who runs one of the most successful and innovative independent bookstores in East Texas.

It was the perfect place to steal away and hide away among great authors of the past and present whether you write or you read. You could surround yourself and even suffocate yourself with powerful prose that ripped you out of the piney woods and transported you to other worlds, other lands, and other times.

My friend had a worried look on her face.

“What’s wrong?” I asked.

“Business is tough,” she said.

“It always has been,” I said.

“I’m wondering if I can stay open,” she said.

“Is it the economy?” I asked.

“Not really,” she said.

“Then what’s wrong?” I asked.

“Let me explain it this way,” she said. “I have five ladies who are my most loyal and faithful customers. I can always depend on them to buy books as gifts for birthdays, anniversaries, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, Christmas.”

She paused and sighed deeply.

“But all five of them were given Kindles for Christmas,” she said. “They are merely a small sampling of the problem I have. People still come in, buy coffee, and visit the books for a while. Then they go home and buy them on Amazon.”

I don’t know who felt worse: my friend trying to survive in a world that has fewer bookstores every day or me because I am writing and producing eBooks.”

I would still go over and buy a printed book from time to time, but only if it was autographed. I like autographs. But I noticed fewer shoppers, and there didn’t seem to be as many new titles as there used to be. The last time I walked in, the coffee was still brewing, but the shelves were bare.

The books were gone.

It was almost as though I had stepped into the pages of Fahrenheit 451.

The books hadn’t been burned.

They had just been returned.

They might as well have been burned. They weren’t coming back.

In my life, bookstores have been the one constant in my life, landmarks regardless of where I lived. The landmarks are vanishing.

I grieve, and I’m not alone.

Mitch Albom, the Chicago columnist and best selling author, explained it this way as he watched Borders go out of business, one store at a time: “We are once again reminded that no matter how lovely the casing, how beautiful the print, how fetching the binding, or how stunning the cover, business is still business. And books are a tough business.

“The problem is people don’t love books the way they once did, nor do they read them the same way. Cheaper electronic versions undermine the need for shelf-space. Younger audiences who haven’t grown up with rainy afternoons spent inside book pages don’t snap up the latest great read – unless there’s a certain vampire or wizard attached.

“The backlists of mid-level authors are not lucrative for the balance sheet. And the pressure for profits to keep the stock price high runs diametrically opposite to the slow, meandering, long-term customer approach that used to define bookstores.”

The world, he said, is changing.

The printed word, he said, is gasping.

A symphony doesn’t play anymore when you pull open a bookstore door, and soon, sadly the doors may be gone as well.

The industry heard the thunder. It didn’t recognize the fact that the storm was on its way.

Bookstores are leaving. EBooks are coming.

One saddens me, and one excites me.

According to Digital Book World, book revenues from portable devices will reach nearly ten billion dollars by 2016, and bookstores – if they don’t figure out how to effectively merge digital and traditional commerce – may face extinction.

Book revenue on e-Reading devices have already reached more than three billion dollars, and it has become a tidal wave that the publishing industry has been unable to control.

According to a report on Mobile Publishing, released by the UK-based Juniper Research firm, about thirty percent of eBooks will be purchased on tablets, fifteen percent on smartphones, and roughly fifty-five percent on eReader devices.

Dr. Windsor Holden, research director for Juniper, predicts that there will still be a need for physical bookstore fronts in 2016, but those who survive will be able to leverage both digital and physical promotional methods. He cited Barnes & Noble that is working to sell Nook devices, tablets, and desktops as a way to sell books.

There will be fewer bookstores.

But the publishing industry will continue to grow.

That’s what the report said.

It may help me.

It didn’t help my friend. A bookstore that only sells coffee is a sad place to be.

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  • This just absolutely breaks my heart, Caleb. My whole history and foundation as a poet was built around a small, independent bookstore called Shakespeare Books, near the campus of Southern Methodist University. It was a crowded little place, stuffed from floor to ceiling with the writings of poets both known and obscure, odd furniture scattered here and there so one could tuck into a corner with a rare book found nowhere else on earth and just get lost in the wonders found there. Every week the proprietor would gather up folding chairs and somehow clear a space for 50 or so of us who would gather to discuss poetry and share an open mike. Those were golden days for the younger starry-eyed me, where I steeped myself in verse and absorbed knowledge like a sponge. I was living the life of a poor, starving artist and full of myself and my endless possibilities and totally carefree. Ah, those were the days. When Shakespeare had to shut down, crowded out by the big-box stores, I wept and mourned for weeks like my own family had died. Your story brings all that back. It truly is an occasion for mourning. A whole way of life, a way of looking at life, a way of being…is gone, along with the warm, nurturing sense of community and belonging. It’s such an incredibly huge loss. My deepest sympathy to your friend…she must be totally shattered. That bookstore was her baby.

  • Newbury

    A heart-breaker dead-on, Caleb. Earlier in this century, we had a small “Mom” bookstore near TCU (there was no “Pop.”) She was a retired school teacher, happy to spend end-life years ‘mongst the books. Hers was much like the one you described, but I don’t remember coffee brewing.

    Additional proof that more changes than we like! Maybe every generation looks back to say, “Life was simpler then,” and feel warm about the comment.

    Example: Late Howard Hodge, who owned several West Texas movie theaters and oil wells counted by the dozens, had colorful reflections on yesterday. “In my youth, it was wine, women and song,” he’d say. “Now, it’s Metrecal, the old gal, and sing along with Mitch.” He reflected on long ago days at the movies: “I’d mix it with the rest of ’em for midnight movies at the Hodge Theater (yep, named for his family). I’d slam down coca-cola, whooping it up on the front row with the gang.” Well into retirement, he admitted that habits had changed. “Nowadays, I prefer attending a matinee of a Lassie movie. I slouch down in a backrow seat, slurping a Maalox snowcone!….

  • As a follow up to this, earlier this week, I was in the bookstore Caleb mentioned. They have posters on the windows offering all their paper books at a 40% discount. The poster also says that after 40 years in the book business, they are going to try a different way to sell books. I have not gotten to speak to the proprietors yet, so I don’t know what the store’s plan is. But it is something that will embrace ebooks as an option, I feel certain. I will miss such venues, too. But it is just another example of the way technology is changing publishing, and the rest of our world. I do almost all my reading now on a Kindle Fire. It is convenient, cheap and allows me to adjust the font so that my old eyes can see the page. I see the new trend as positive in many ways, but I hate it comes at such a price to brick and mortar booksellers.

  • I didn’t begin visiting bookstores until I left Baltimore. Who needed them? We had the Enoch Pratt Free Library System, one of the greatest in the English speaking world. And, I could find anything they didn’t have just 40 miles down the road at the Library of Congress and the National Archives. Oh, and let’s not forget the Smithsonian. Lord, I miss them all. I live in California for the weather. It’s gentler on old bones than any other climate in the United States. However, there is no other feature to recommend it. Certainly not its libraries. Now that its bookstores are closing, it’s turning into an intellectual wasteland irrigated by the Internet. Thank God, for eBooks!

  • Jeanne Woodfin Kramer

    This reminds me of an old Twilight Zone episode . . . The big bomb has finally destroyed most of the buildings and life on earth, but the “bookworm” down in the cellar reading during his lunch hour survived. He now had all the time in the world to read and no one to stop him. Almost immediately, he dropped and broke his glasses. With plenty of time and all the books in the world available, he couldn’t see a thing. While it’s sad to see cherished ways of life vanish, there is always something new and exciting on the horizon. What’s that famous quotation – “time and tide wait for no man”? For all of our lamenting over days gone by, I’ve never had a year that I would be willing to trade for one in the past (even after accumulating 61 of them)! My sympathy to your friend, Caleb.

  • Caleb Pirtle

    Jeanne: When the bookstores are no longer with us, we will regard them as friends who won’t be coming back, and the mourning begins.

  • Caleb Pirtle

    Jack: I spent my happiest days growing up in a library. Ray Bradbury was right. If you want to be a writer, spend four years in a library, and you will learn a lot more than four years at a University.

  • Caleb Pirtle

    I know the bookstore you are talking about, and it was the most innovative independent library I have ever seen. In reality, I was talking about the only bookstore in our hometown. Those shelves are bare, and all that remains is the smell of coffee instead of the smell of books. Our friend in Longview is breathing its last, too, I fear.

  • Christina Carson

    I owe the e-book era for one of the greatest opportunities in my life, the chance to be a published author with the only gatekeeper being me. But the love I carry in my heart for books is a true love and will never die. I sat here reading the comments and wondering what is it about books and bookstores that has so stirred those of us of the past ages. What came to me is that though change is the reality of life on earth, not matter what happens there are certain requirements for human beings that keep us whole. One is beauty in whatever forms it presents. The choices we are making for the future seem to be diminishing the ease with which we can contact beauty. By beauty I mean not only visual or auditory grandeur,but also that which lives amidst serenity, the places where we can get away from noise, chaos, and actually connect with greatness from the past. The hush and yet sense of adventure that abided in bookstores was that special sort of beauty and without our knowing it, those were healing places, not just retail outlets.

  • Caleb Pirtle

    Don: The old days are always best because where we have banked our memories. And when we tire of today’s frantic-paced lifestyle, we can go back on a rainy afternoon, dig them out, and relive them again. Most often, they get better with the years.

  • Caleb Pirtle

    Jo: My two fondest memories are these: the days I spent in the library and the days I spent in one of those old-fashioned, down-home, home-spun, hometown independent book stores. In those days, all book stores were independent. The owner knew her customers, and whenever she received a shipment of new books, she would sit down and call those who love a good mystery, those who love a good romance, and those who lived history well told. We went because she called us. She called us because she knew we would head to town before the books were taken out of their boxes. I’ve been going to chain bookstores for years. No one knows my name. No one cares if I walk in our walk out. The face I see behind the counter one week is gone by the next. And that’s what’s happened to bookstores.

  • Annette Skarin

    It’s a paradigm shift that I don’t enjoy. I still like to see the hard copy. Occasionally I buy it on my device but when I want to share it with others, I buy the paper version. I practically bought out a small bookstore when they went out of business. I paid under a dollar a book as I felt pangs of buying someone’s going-out-of-business remorse…then I went home and read them and shared some and gave some to the library. I use my Kindle mostly for reference books. You can get library books on your devices now but I still like to hold a book and savor it. I also order books on Amazon either new or from used bookstores.

  • Caleb Pirtle

    Annette: I understand and agree with you. My generation learned to revere books. We love the way they feel in our hands, the way those musty old pages smell. The newer generation doesn’t have such a nostalgic memory of books. In five years, I believe there will only be used bookstores left. The digital age will have arrived. And someday, it, too, will be replaced, and people will fondly remember the touch and smell of the Kindle and Nook.

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