Bookstore Rock: Just how many people can you pack in between bookshelves?
by James Simenc
When Peter Hook—legendary founding member of both Joy Division and New Order—strolled in, escorted by his publicist, the place erupted in cheers. Then, as he disappeared up the stairs to the loft where we conducted our interview for LARB, the crowd let out a disappointed “aww.” Like any other crowd at a sold-out venue, their chatter soon became electric. But this wasn’t the Troubador or the Roxy. This show was at Skylight Books.
So what if Hook is famous for his music — one of the key progenitors of post-punk — and not his writing? Who cares if some of the people packed between the shelves (and I do mean packed — I watched at least a dozen people turned away at the door because there was simply no more space) would rather have their vinyl signed than their hardcover? The fact is, they were still excited about the book. They still bought it, and they still couldn’t wait to read it. And they chose to spend their Friday night at a local bookstore.
There has been no shortage of discussion in the last few years about the decline of brick-and-mortar book sales, the Amazonian cyber-monopoly, the rise of digital book readers (Have they really risen all that much, or am I just behind the curve in getting one? It seems to me the ability to read a book onscreen is falling by the wayside, an ancillary capability, as the devices asymptotically approach the same form and function as all handheld gadgets. A Kindle Fire, an iPad Mini, and a Samsung Galaxy walk into a bar…). But I digress.
Yes, you could point to the decline of Borders and say bookstores are dying; the economics of the industry have undoubtedly changed. Or, instead, you could look at something like the Skylight reading series and conclude that bookstores, local ones, are still thriving as significant cultural centers. Places of books, be they stores or libraries, inspire a certain sense of respect. We are hushed in the presence of the printed word. We are taught to whisper in “library voices” (whether out of courtesy to the woman reading in the corner or in deference to the books themselves is not quite clear). This attitude has a place, surely, but it can’t be inspiring many people to stop by. To have mass appeal — to have modern-day cultural relevance, even — they need to generate excitement. They need to inspire discussion and laughter, to engage the public. Therefore if a bookstore can get a fire-code-breaking number of people jazzed to show up on a Friday night, then I say bookstores are alive and well.
James Simenc is a blog contributor to LARB.
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