Monday, April 27, 2015

The Last Defense

Will nostalgic bookstore-browsing survive alongside Amazon and eBooks? ♦
I am a champion of literacy. I rekindle the flame of passion for hard- and paperbound books page by page, keeping the chapter-flipping frenzy alive as a vocation. I am employee of Barnes and Noble. I ask that you now picture me as such:

     More specifically, I’m a barista in the Barnes & Noble Café, although the job description does list me as a bookseller. Since October of 2012, I have stood behind the counter, strategically placed behind the magazine racks and the Nook service desk, surrounded by thousands of books, and earning minimum wage just for pressing espresso machine buttons and stirring lattés.
     Behind the Fortune 500 glitz, extravagant promotional deals, and the hocking of our super special Membership is a subverted message: we’re just trying to stay in the game. In the break room there’s a chart of top performance, week by week, ranking every employee in the store based on their conversion of laypeople to Membership holders. At $25/per convert just to earn a 10% discount, some national recognition is deserved for those who manage to sell as many as two a day. Somewhere in the chain of command, there is a strong dissonance, a simultaneous desire to protect the book buyers and gain a competitive edge against the digital market. Our new CEO has delegated all technology development to Samsung, who designed the new “Nook” (read: “Galaxy with lots of B&N logos”) and therefore prevents us from taking the loss if the Kindle completely obliterates our eBook market entirely.
     Despite all of this, I have found a remarkable number of kindred spirits—those who laud that particular romance between a reader and paper pages, who lament the loss of intimacy in digital reproductions. It’s a ragtag rebellion, not necessarily the rallying force that will move thousands to defend the plight of bookstores, but a loyal group nonetheless. Here’s what the defense looks like: readers either over 40 years old and under 12—those who haven’t made it to the digital market. The Literary Fiction and Biography sections receive far less love than the tables devoted to Grisham, Patterson, and Sparks. Middle aged women now unabashedly purchase romance novels, emboldened by the success of 50 Shades of Gray. (Not to point fingers, but men have grown bolder too, removing the politely intentional seran wrap from Playboy issues and leaving them scattered in concerning places throughout the store).
     I exist somewhere in this dynamic too; I am, for all of my bookstore pride, as responsible as anyone in my age group for The Great Decline of my beloved bookstore experience, not to mention my job security. On breaks I peruse the shelves, flipping through pages, feeling textures and weights, inspecting the art up close, before jumping online and purchasing a copy for $4.37 on Amazon. This, despite being one of the lucky few to receive 30% off any title in the store. My conscience is only half-guilty, since I’m working part-time at minimum wage, and books fly through my hands at a rate that would nearly match my salary if I paid sticker price. I recognize the irony though.
     The question is, what loyalty do you—those who have less of a personal stake in its continued existence—stand to gain from championing a fading form of literary commerce? Will your love fade? Will the words mean less? Will Shakespeare (pun unintended) turn in his grave for the loss of the paper experience? Why do we still care so much about Shakespeare anyway?
   Aside from that last question, we should be thinking about this. We should consider the traditional book-buying experience from this ephemeral time rift between the old way of doing things and the new. Because this is the moment. We decide what the history of books becomes. If, in fifteen years, the brick and mortar crumbles and we’ve done away with the tactile browsing tradition and we forget what it was like to once hold and leaf through a book, then so be it. The digital shelves are ever-expanding to meet our demand, and physical shelves gather dust. It is the seemingly negligible decision of where we will buy our next books from that shapes what the book market will cater to for decades of readers to come. And so, as the champion I am, I ask—will you join the final stand?
  • About the Author
    Alexandria Moore is a junior, studying professional writing and journalism at Miami University. She is an editor for Inklings Literary Magazine and a writer for the Miami Student.

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