Threats to the Bookstore, Antilogoi

Positive feedback loop, vicious circle

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Been spending the week in Texas, where I grew up, with my Mom who just got out of the hospital after having surgery. It's been a good visit, except there are a few things that we usually do that we couldn't because of her health.

One of the best things is going to the local Border's books - which is a mega-retail chain bookstore - here in her small town. Good size, not too massive, and pretty nice. It was a good place for me to get a couple of books off the shelf and try to expose Mom to some new ideas here and there, always sparking some conversation.

Even though Mom couldn't go,  I thought I would and was saddened to see that the store is closing. Going inside saddened me - it looked like a refugee camp for books. Of course, I have no love lost for a mega-corporate retail giant's failure, but for the loss of those remainders from the presence of that bookstore - the space where I had such a nice time over the years.

I felt incredibly guilty on the way home because earlier, talking with my sister about her Kindle, I decided that perhaps the time had come to buy one. Looking at the prices and the ebook selection was really persuasive to me that I should get one. I have been thinking about it for a while, but was really getting close to getting one. After amassing some old gift cards, I decided to go ahead and get one, realizing that I could read more and more regularly the sort of pop non-fiction that I really like.

Then today there's this nice article which I felt was indicting my very reasons for joining the ebook market. The internet as a positive feedback loop, only exposing you to what you already think and believe is a fairly compelling argument. The bookstore allows you to find things that you wouldn't normally look for, encounter, or seek to purchase on your own.

But do ebooks really differ from the corporate dominated paper book market? Is the physical bookstore really that different than Amazon.com? I have found, with about the same amount of serendipity, pretty interesting books and things to read via poor decisions made by Amazon's algorithm.

Also, people continue to share things they've read, even if they can't physically give the book to someone (although the technology will eventually allow it) which exposes people to a similar "feedback loop" as the internet would - my friends will probably only recommend things I already like or already am interested in anyway. And if they don't, they have the human ability to persuade me with ethos that the book is worth reading.

But on the other side, the loss of that physical space is pretty disheartening. Talking in a forum about books is a bit different. Not sure how that will change. I have a sneaking feeling though that the corporate bookstore's physical space is used for the same sort of positive feedback loop that the internet provides. When I look around at others, I get the sense they are not interested in reaching out to other people or exploring books that they have never heard of or by authors who they know will challenge their ideas. They have selected the comfortable and familiar.

Furthermore, the corporate bookstore model ensures that the field of choice is going to be limited either way. Amazon has a high stake in making sure I don't get access to particular titles on my Kindle. Barnes and Noble and Borders also have the same motives. I can use the internet to both find the books I think I will like and also perhaps research some of those limits or find the independent presses that might provide me something new and interesting.

I suspect that for many years I will work in a mixed medium of print and electronic reading materials. I already do. I think the loss of the physical space of the bookstore is pretty sad, but hopefully another alternative will come along.

I also wonder how much the fear of the new medium motivates the gloom and doom "end of the local bookstore" rhetoric. I think they are almost already gone right now. Maybe the ebook will force the corporate bookstore to adapt or die. Perhaps we will find the shelves smaller but populated with more interesting titles as the major presses and mass market novels all move to electronic format. Not sure, feeling somewhat guilty, but also quite interested to see what the electronic book reader does to my reading habits and interaction with books.


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