I gingerly entered the second-hand bookstore, having little idea of its contents. The light was poor, windows blocked by bookcases and other random furniture, and I caught myself before standing on a book on the floor.
I say ‘book’, but there were hundreds of them, piled on the tiled floor in no particular order. You couldn’t really call it a floor, it was more a pathway, a maze, the books defining the space, like something out of a fantasy novel, books of magic hidden somewhere in its depths but no-one knowing where they were shelved.
It didn’t take long to realise that this wasn’t a shop, this was just where the owner kept his books. There wasn’t really much of an effort to sell anything – the opposite in fact, this place was a token gesture towards a viable economic concern, technically a business but run by someone who devoutly believed that books shouldn’t be sullied by crass commercialism. I’m not even convinced there was a till.
Borders has entered liquidation, Waterstones was recently sold at a knock-down price, WH Smith always seems to be fighting off economic woes. Bookstores, sadly, seem to be slowly fading into the past, and maybe the same is true of physical books themselves. The whole business of books, reading them and selling them, is transitioning into the ether, all things being digital nowadays. And I’ve helped encourage that – I have an eReader, I use Amazon.
But earlier I read this post by Maggie Cakes, about the death of ‘real-life’ books and bookshops. I don’t want to steal from that, but should books become mere information and data, I’ll miss the physicality of it all.
But one of the things that I’ll also miss is the eccentricity of bookstores. Like the shop I described earlier, there’s something…odd about small independent bookstores that is largely lost with the bigger chains, and totally non-existent with two shelves dedicated to books in major supermarkets.
The internet has a lot of things to recommend it, and its fast become a defining force in society. No arguments there. But it’s not as good at capturing the essential ‘stuffness’ of stuff – I remember going on the Maid of the Mist trip around Niagara Falls, and so many people were experiencing it through a lens. The internet is a little like that, mediating experience through a screen, and that’s a shame.
(I’m also reminded of something I read somewhere about an artificial beach resort in Japan next door to an actual beach – the artificial one, the product, the artifice, was by far the most popular among visitors. I don’t know why this springs to mind but it seems pertinent somehow.)
The world’s changing, and some of the things we expected to be forever – like books – might not be. But before we dive headlong into the brave new world, let’s think about the things we’re losing, and the ways in which we experience them. And learn to love those crazy old bookstores before they fade from our high streets forever.