In the mid-1400’s, Johannes Gutenberg invented the revolutionary printing press. The entrepreneurial spirit of emerging European capitalism, and the sharp rise of medieval learning and literacy amongst the middle class was intensified by Gutenberg’s invention. Several years later in 1455-56 The Gutenberg Printing Press would announce its first fresh copy of the Gutenberg Bible, an elaborate creation of tremendous importance. Books like the bible and other important texts could now be mass produced and circulated, raising literacy and spearheading a mental enlightenment of sorts. The printing press would, in fact, exacerbate a period of intellectual revolution.
Fast-forward less than 600 years and we face another revolution. If the printing press marked the birth of the bookstore, the e-book is quickly becoming the death of it. On the heels of the news that Borders is filing for bankruptcy as a result of the e-book market, it is a frightening thought that our world might exist one day without bookstores. Not only are e-books and e-readers consuming the lion’s share of the literature market, but online books stores such as Amazon (a giant in its own right) and Books-a-million have made book buying easier than ever. The question remains whether society–neighborhoods and communities–would be better off with or without local bookstores.
I myself have encountered the dilemma. As a seminarian, there is no shortage of required texts—my car has become a library on wheels with books shoved in every crevice and stacked on every seat. Some people carry around a free book or two in case they get stuck waiting somewhere, but I lug around all my books to various study spots and events “just in case”. I don’t own an e-reader (but the thought has crossed my mind on more than one occasion). I do, however, order most of my books online through Amazon. I rarely buy books from a bookstore, but I normally study at my local Barnes and Noble. Though I—like many other students—acknowledge that a Kindle makes life much easier for the avid reader, the consequential loss of bookstores will be more devastating than most people think.
Call me old school, but being in the presence of physical books brings in itself an entirely different experience, one that an e-reader will never be able to attain. I concur with Al Mohler when he writes
The loss of the bookstore will mean more than lost opportunities to sell books, however. For the last two centuries and more, bookstores and bookstalls have been centers for the dissemination of culture and ideas. The merging of the bookstore and the coffee shop brought two complementary cultural spaces together. Books are about ideas, and bookstores offer a rare context for meeting other people interested in ideas.
This is what makes bookstores so necessary to the thought life of many. Bookstores combine the unique elements of thought and discussion, they allow for a survey of multiple opinions in the same setting.
For me, there is a motivational aspect to studying or thinking in a bookstore. Being in the presence of books, of ideas that were (for the most part) thought through by thorough and articulate authors, helps me concentrate. When thinking gets laborious, a bookstore becomes therapeutic.
Obviously, the e-book and e-reader craze will continue and the market will continue to be overwhelmed by online booksellers. More brand name bookstores will struggle to make a profit. I will continue to purchase an exorbitant amount of books via Amazon, and I will continue to spend my study time at local bookstores. Still, with the modern bookstore is facing heavy setbacks, I hope that they’ll be able to weather the storm. The bookstore is a valuable jewel in a treasure chest of common stones in society and the absence of it will be more devastating than anticipated.
Mohler, Albert. “The Marketplace of Ideas – Why Bookstores Matter.” Online.