Of books and bookshops
A significant part of my grad school days was spent in bookshops — both second hand and new. A typical Sunday afternoon might have involved walking aimlessly into a second hand bookshop and finding something like this. Then there was the major independent bookshop, reputed to be one of the best in the Southern hemisphere. Ten minutes walk from a left-leaning university, surrounded by cafes and vegetarian restaurants, that was the place where many of us debated the empire and hegemony (and girls, of course).
For someone like me who grew up in a third world
superslum mega city or the small town west, the large independent bookshop or scores of small second hand ones were a major part of the big city attraction. Even after I had left school and started working, for years I’d visit that bookshop district next to the university everytime I’d be in the city — you see, I work in a small town, and for years we had (almost) nothing comparable.
Then Borders opened in my town. All of a sudden, I could actually browse a numbers of shelves for something more interesting than the latest Dan Brown novel. Many a Sunday afternoon was spent sitting at their in-store cafe browsing an issue of the Foreign Affairs while sipping late while my more significant other spent some time with her girlfriends.
And then Borders closed.
All of a sudden, I am (almost) without a bookshop. Of course, these days I prefer to spend the Sunday afternoon at a playground. And bookshops aren’t really that important for getting books. Even books, in the paper format, aren’t really that important any more. But still, the end of Borders resulted in enough emotion to warrant a facebook status update or two.
Then I discovered that the second hand bookshops around my old university are also mostly gone, though the big independent bookshop still stands strong. Again, sentimental facebook status.
Nothing more. Borders made a series of bad decisions. Second hand bookshops can’t compete with the online sellers. Schumpetarian creative destruction at work. This is what progress looks like.
Then I bumped into an old friend — a self-styled ‘leftist activist’ — who was organising some community actions to protect the bookshop district. She berated me for buying books online instead of supporting the local community.
I pointed out that the ‘local bookseller’ would just get the book online, and charge me extra. Yes, I could afford the few dollars more. But then again, couldn’t the few dollars be better spent on a cuppa or something else? In effect, she was asking me to subsidise an activity which couldn’t survive on its own.
As with most things, my ‘economistic, dispassionate, cold analysis’ failed to sway the heart of the passionate activist. I wished her well.
The irony of her campaign being about conserving the status quo occurred to me much later. It also occurred to me that second hand or independent booksellers did have a very useful role above and beyond selling books. And it occurred to me that there was an example of this in my own town.
There is a bookshop in our town that specialises in Asia. They have a wonderful collection of new and old books and other materials Asia-related. Yes, I could get pretty much anything they sell online. But then again, I don’t usually go online thinking of buying a 1876 vintage wall map of South Asia. They understand marketing well. Plus, they organise book tours and events.
Borders wouldn’t have got Amitav Ghosh here. But they did. And their patrons pay a premium for this. And while Borders and whole bunch of second hand bookshops are gone, these guys are thriving.
So much for bookshops, what about books?
I guess I will still buy some books for aesthetic reasons. I like my old copy of the Rubaiyat. I like my Flashman series. And I would like to have won a signed copy of the first edition General Theory for this. But kindle is fine for Edward Luce’s pessimistim about America.