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Saving bookstores

BREAKTHROUGH - Elfren S. Cruz (The Philippine Star) - June 10, 2021 - 12:00am

Since the beginning of the 21st century, I have been hearing predictions that the days of the bookstore was ending. Amazon was supposed to be the giant book distributor that would replace all bookstores. Then in 2007 Kindle books came into the market. This was supposed to be the book for the age of new technology – a book that can be digitally downloaded and read with an iPad or a laptop. There were speculations that books would disappear in the same way that DVDs and CDs disappeared.

After all these predictions, the physical bookstore has survived and the predictions of its demise are heard less often. It is true that many bookstores have disappeared. I remember that in the 1960s and 1970s, I had some favorite bookstores that are no longer around. I hope booklovers still remember EREHWON (Nowhere spelled backwards), an independent bookstore that had an excellent collection of books. Then there was A Different Bookstore and another one which was just a nook in the Rustan’s building in Makati. Major universities used to be surrounded by second hand bookstores. Most of these are gone.

A few have survived. I think Solidaridad in Padre Faura St. will continue to be around for as long as its founder F. Sionil Jose continues his love affair with books. The bookstore business has survived several seismic shocks the last few years. The closing of the second largest bookstore chain in the United States – BORDERS – was a major business earthquake.

My favorite street in London was Charing Cross. It used to be lined with small bookstores of all types, especially second hand books. Each bookstore specialized in one or two book categories, from modern warfare to Middle East history and culture to architecture to medieval civilizations. The last time I went, a few years ago, most of the bookstores were gone.

At the end of Charing Cross was the iconic bookstore called Foyle’s. It is a multi-story store but the most impressive, for me, were its staff who were so literate about the subject they were assigned to service. There was an entire section for military books and the staff could discuss the major battles of history, and could recommend several books about specific military campaigns.

There is an article about John Daunt in a recent Financial Times issue. He owns a nine-store bookstore chain in the United Kingdom. He was also hired to save the largest UK bookstore chain WATERSTONES, which has 286 bookstores. He succeeded and now he has been recruited to run Barnes and Noble, the largest bookstore chain in the world.

Daunt developed his own distinctive style which local bookstore managers might be able to use. Daunt recommend books that he and his staff have actually read and enjoyed, rather than “…publishers’ favorites, and displaying them artfully with their covers face out, sometimes with handwritten notes of recommendation. Most retail chains now grasp the importance of creating an enticing atmosphere in stores, but he  [Daunt] mastered it early. He understood bookshops work best if they are like clubs in which dedicated readers can consult expert curators.”

The one thing that Amazon and other online outfits seem to have forgotten is the power of the book lovers.

In the ancient world, papyri and scrolls were already being collected by institutions and private individuals. The Great Library of Alexandria was established during the reign of Ptolemy ll around 285 to 246 BC. It was located in Alexandria, Egypt and it is estimated it contained a collection of as many as 400,000 scrolls. The invention of the printing press in the 15th century made books cheaper and more accessible. Jean Grolier owned a library of 3,000 volumes during that period.

Carla Kessler of the Washington Post said it best: “Any place selling books, whether it’s a messy Goodwill or a well curated antiquarian store, recognizes that the surprise and randomness within a vast array of options are part of the appeal.” For book lovers, there is no replacement for the thrill of browsing in a bookstore. Mark Athitakis wrote in the Washington Post: “Shuttered bookstores are a reminder of how much our reading lives is a process of discovery and how online retailers’ attempt to recreate the discovery experience tend to be huge letdowns. Algorithms can tell you what you like based on what you’ve said you like before. …But they can’t introduce you to the thing you might like for the first time, all for yourself.”

Personally, I have been able to build a sizeable Filipiniana book collection mostly bought from browsing in second-hand bookstores, One of my best sources used to be “Old Manila,” a second hand bookstore in MegaMall which used to specialize in Filipiniana books.

Today, many bookstores are struggling to stay open. National Bookstore, which used to be the leading bookstore, has stayed in the business, but has shifted much of their retail space to selling educational supplies and accessories. The one bookstore chain that has remained true to its calling is Fully Booked. In the provinces there are some bookstores like Savage Mind in Naga City which has thrived by becoming a community center for book lovers in the city.

The bookstore is a physical experience that digital technology cannot replicate. Bookstores will survive for as long as there are people who love to experience the smell and touch of books, and who just love to browse in a bookstore.

*      *      *

Young Writers’ Hangout on June 19 with May Tobias Papa, 2-3 p.m.

Writefest2021, our annual 6-session workshop, returns on July 12-23. Contact writethingsph@gmail.com. 0945.2273216

Email: elfrencruz@gmail.com

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