As we all know, the independent book store is struggling. The rise of more and better TV, independent film and new media, and a rich, ever more interesting internet, these put books at risk. The advent of Amazon.com and Amazon.ca puts the bookstore at risk. The advent of Amazon’s Kindle and other digital delivery vehicles put the very idea of the book at risk. Even if books and bookstores survive, advantage goes to the large chains that can buy in bulk. It’s tough running in the independent book store.
But it may be that bookstores create value that we don’t appreciate. David points out that book stores have a magical effect on the social world around them. They work as magnets for pedestrian traffic. They manufacture an invitation to enter. They endow the visitor with a permission to browse. They give the visitor a reason and a right to be out and about.
This is important because two things are true about the North American city.
1) The prohibition against being at large but unoccupied in public, while diminished, continues to haunt us. There are lots of things that helped create this prohibition. One of my favorite causes: that Northern European hostility for idleness. Anyone in public not gainfully employed, without purpose or pretext, was clearly "loitering" and this must indicate an intellectual or moral deficit from which only bad things could come. We are a little less preoccupied by this prohibition. And thanks go to several things, including urban renovation, the new urbanism, the rise of distributed commerce, the creative professionals passion for city life, the fall of crime. Starbucks with its creation of a "third space" contributed mightily. Now it was ok actually to exist in public without a warrant, to sip coffee without an excuse. (Of course, I still look at my watch occasionally to make it clear that I am waiting for someone.)
2) buildings and neighborhoods that do not have pedestrian traffic become pallid, even hostile places. Their decline, the very death, is not impossible. As a result, some economic interests of the city depend upon the kindness of strangers. Without pedestrians walking to and fro, the emotional temperature begins to drop, the welcome of a place begins to fade.
We have robust virtual evidence of this effect. This is precisely why Second Life, so extraordinarily promising for some purposes, proved finally a space people did not wish to occupy. There was no one about. Neighborhoods were ghost towns. Second Life was itself a kind of vapor ville. If this is not evidence enough, consider downtown Detroit on the weekend. We like the presence of other people, even if we have no interest in them as people. We are pleased to treat them, perhaps, as walk-ons in our own personal dramas. They give a certain, pleasing effervescence to the world around us.
Clearly, these two problems belong in tandem because the solution to one becomes the solution to the other. As and when we lift the prohibition, people occupy buildings and neighborhoods in great number for longer times and hey presto both buildings and the neighborhoods come alive. And when this social and emotional change takes place, an economic event is set in train. Property values begin to rise. Commerce flourishes. Cities become safer and more habitable.
Very good. Back to independent bookstores. There is no point in special pleading. These bookstores are deeply interesting place but we cannot made a place for them on these grounds alone. They must pay their way. They must extract their own value from the world to bless this world with their presence. But it’s now clear that value narrowly defined is not going to sustain them. If they are to survive we must show that they create value of another kind.
And this is where David’s argument comes in. Bookstores are very good at breaking the prohibition against public loitering. They attract people to neighborhoods, into buildings. They endow the visitor with a permission to browse. They give the pedestrian the right to be out and about. And they do this just as well as the "third space" coffee shop, perhaps better. What is called for then is an expanded appreciated for the value that bookstores create and we need property owners and managers to begin to factor this value into their calculation of the rent they demand of their tenants. (Margie Zeidler might be an inspiration here.) Something tells me Richard Florida could do a more elegant job of rendering this argument, but until he weighs in, this will have to do. Bookstores, independent bookstores, especially, create a value over and above the supply of printed materials and we must understand and act of this value, before it’s too late. As David Michaelides points out, many more of North America’s bookstores will go out of business this year.
The Swipe bookstore here.
Peter. 2008. Memory Lane Lined With Bookstores. Collecting Children’s Books. March 5 2008. here.
Teich, Jessica. 2008. Eulogy for an Independent Bookstore. The Nation. March 10, 2008. here.
For more on Margie Zeidler here.
American Booksellers Association here.