Andy on Why Bookstores Matter

The following is a guest post from Managing Editor Andy Ambraziejus, about the important role of bookstores as physical spaces for book lovers and readers.

Photo of City Lights Bookstore exterior

City Lights Bookstore courtesy of Andy Ambraziejus

I got a deeper insight into why the existence of physical bookstores matters.  And why browsing in a bookstore offers some things that online browsing can’t replicate – at least so far.

It started with a recent visit to City Lights Bookstore in the North Beach section of San Francisco. The bookstore was founded in 1953 by poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti and a partner to sell paperbacks, which weren’t easily available in bookstores at the time.  City Lights became a haven for such writers as Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, and Neal Cassady, soon labeled as the writers of the Beat Generation.  As the website of the bookstore puts it, they and other writers came by and “sat, read, rapped, and hung out without being hassled to buy anything.”

Ferlinghetti also began publishing small editions of poetry in paperback.  In 1956 the bookstore gained notoriety by publishing Ginsberg’s Howl and Other Poems.  Howl caused a sensation for its depictions of drug use and homosexuality.  Legal action and a trial followed.  The threat of censorship and arrest was real, but in a precedent-setting case Howl was declared not to be obscene.  The publicity surrounding the trial made Howl an underground best seller, and the bookstore itself a symbol of free expression.  The bookstore grew, both in size and reputation, and in the summer of 2013 celebrated it’s 60th anniversary, doing great business.

Photo of City Lights Bookstore interior

City Lights Bookstore interior courtesy of Andy Ambraziejus

Posters celebrating Howl and other works by Beat writers, as well as posters of protest and other paraphernalia, are prominently displayed on the ground floor of the bookstore.  Just seeing the posters and being reminded what took place here gave me a little thrill: Yes, being in publishing mattered, and publishing books mattered, and this place was a good reminder of that.

The second floor of the bookstore is now specifically dedicated to poetry.  After perusing the shelves on the ground floor, I went upstairs. It was like walking into a church or temple. The feeling of being in a sacred place — that’s the only word  I can use — was palpable.  There were a few people in the room sitting on chairs and reading. One person was leafing through a copy of Howl. Others were intensely concentrating on different books. No one was speaking. The silence and sense of history were even stronger than on the first floor.

Can social interaction online replicate that experience?  With the same intensity?  Perhaps being in City Lights is a unique experience, but isn’t every visit to a bookstore or library similar, if less intense?  Being with other people who are enjoying the same activity you are is a very affirming and nurturing experience. We’re social creatures, after all.  For those of us who like to read books, the bookstore or library is our gathering place, where we not only find books but get that affirmation and nurturing.

In one of his recent blogs, publishing guru Mike Shatzkin made the good point that a bookstore display does a much better job of displaying books than online pages do.  As he says, “It isn’t hard for somebody in a bookstore to look at hundreds of books in a few minutes. It’s nearly impossible online. This either requires the consumer to spend more time shopping to see the same number of titles they used to see in a store, or to make a decision having seen fewer.”   What?  The old-fashioned way is more efficient? And what about hand-selling and the social aspect of knowing your local bookseller and asking him for recommendations? Is that a reason why independent bookstores are making a comeback in some quarters?

Sure, book discovery online has other benefits, and can be so much more focused and wide-ranging.  But I think of it more as work. Going to a bookstore, on the other hand, is more often than not closer to play for me. “Like being a kid in a candy store,” as some of my friends have said, when I asked them what they enjoyed about browsing in bookstores. Many of them emphasized that notion of play and sense of childlike adventure and discovery.  “I can more easily see the books available to me.”  “The books are more real than online.”  “It’s a place where I belong.”

Photo of bulletin board at City Lights Bookstore

Bulletin board at City Lights Bookstore courtesy of Andy Ambraziejus

I wonder how the people who seem to be tethered to their devices these days feel about shopping in a physical bookstore as opposed to online. Do their gadgets represent drudgery? Fun? Both? Nothing?  Will these people miss things like browsing in a physical bookstore if bookstores slowly disapper? Or will they even notice?  And will they get their sense of community from social media and not feel they’re isolated or lacking something if they don’t visit a place where books are displayed?

I wonder.

Andy Ambraziejus is AMACOM’s Managing Editor. He started working for AMACOM in August 1999. He runs the Production Department, which includes the Associate Editors who work on the editorial side of things getting the books copyedited, proofread, index, and designed. You can follow Andy on twitter at @AndyAmbraziejus.

Earlier Posts:
Discovering the Library and the World
Frankfurt Dispatches: Andy Discovers Bad Soden
Introducing AMACOM… Andy

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2 responses to “Andy on Why Bookstores Matter

  1. Ellen R. Kadin

    Thanks, Andy, for expressing so well what many of us feel about bookstores and books. And I hadn’t thought about City Lights in a long time. Nice to see…and hear your take on the transporting atmosphere there.

  2. Pingback: Andy Ambraziejus on “Why Bookstores Matter”

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