I used to love bookstores. When I first moved to London I worked a little way up the road from a bunch of them, and as I started work quite late in the morning I had time to go browsing. I didn’t have any money to actually buy anything, but somehow I still ended up with a wall covered in books.
Travelling for a few months, I had to buy a second suitcase to cart my books around. There were always bookstores wherever I went, and I discovered some great authors by stopping for a coffee and a browse.
The last time I went into a bookstore to browse, let alone buy something, was years ago. I was an early adopter of ebooks and had a Compaq iPAQ filled with everything I could find. Back then you still had to buy physical books if you wanted to keep reading your favourite authors, but for that I had Amazon. Actually going into a bookstore was a hassle when everything I could ever want was a few clicks away, and cheaper too.
My bookshelf kept growing for a few years, if a little slower. I found a science fiction author I enjoyed and bought his entire backlist, or tracked down a copy of a book I read when I was a kid. I bought physical copies for books I already had an electronic version of, just to have them on my shelf.
At some point I stopped buying physical books. My wife still did, following her favourites and avoiding ereaders, and so my bookshelf kept growing. It just did so even more slowly.
I saw a bookstore yesterday and tried to remember the last time I went into one. My wife now has an ereader, and though she’s still getting used to it she’s actually pretty happy. Our bookshelf hasn’t grown in a year. I read on my phone mostly, but I use a Kindle if I’m at the beach. I haven’t read a physical book in a long time. Not even my own.
At some point, while I was ignoring them and revelling in the huge selection and options of Amazon, the bookstores I loved went away. There are still a few dotted around, but they aren’t actually bookstores anymore, not the way they used to be. The staff have no idea what they’re talking about and the selection sucks. The atmosphere just isn’t the same.
This is my fault. I get that.
There are people who kept going, who kept browsing and buying from actual stores. There are bookstores that are as cool as they ever were, just none near me.
Here’s the thing: I’m not going to change. I’m not going to start buying books from my local bookstore because I’m not suddenly going to start reading physical books again. For those special books, the ones I need to have on my shelf, I’ll try. I’ll go to the store and I’ll get them to order a copy for me (because they won’t have it on the shelf), but this is too little, too late.
Bookstores will never be more than a niche in my life, and as more people shift to using Amazon (or some other online store) for their book needs things are only going to get worse. I say worse only because of nostalgia, of course. The new world is fantastic, or I wouldn’t be using it.
But I will miss the shelves crammed with potential. I will miss the hunt. No matter how good, no matter how much more efficient it is, a recommendation algorithm just isn’t the same.
OK, I’m done being an old man for today.
Go read a book.