The Bookshops of New York Fight Back!

Project Team member Marilyn Deegan has been in New York recently speaking about The Academic Book of the Future Project. In this post she writes about the bookshops she saw there, the ways in which they hybridised the physical and digital, and the implications this might have for the ways that we think about academic books.

I’ve always been a lover of bookshops, but have increasingly become a reader on Kindle—either the dedicated device or on my smartphone. Living in France, English language books are expensive and limited, and at first (I have been there 10 years) I ordered printed books online, now for many books (especially crime fiction), I download them. I find, however, that there are certain books that I can browse on Kindle, but can’t actually read in depth: cookery books (a passion of mine) and serious academic books. I find that the need to flip around an academic book, looking at the table of contents, index, maybe not reading in a linear sequence doesn’t work well on devices. Odd—in the early 90s the printed book was rejected as too linear, and the digital and hypertext were to save us from the tyranny of linearity.

 

Barnes & Noble, Union Square, NY

Barnes & Noble, Union Square, NY. Credit: Wikimedia Commons, Beyond My Ken.

So last Saturday morning I was wandering round New York in a bit of a jetlagged fog, and went into Barnes and Noble in Union Square. The big Barnes and Noble on 6th Avenue used to be one of my favourite bookshops in all the world (well, after Foyles in London), but sadly it closed down and the space became a shop selling storage solutions. Barnes and Noble, which advertises itself as the world’s largest bookseller is the last book-selling chain left standing in the US, and is managing to keep afloat despite the onslaught of online booksellers, notably Amazon, with a range of creative commercial moves aimed at diversifying the selling of books and associated products.

Is there anywhere more eclectic than a large general bookshop? Everything from Kierkegaad to Winnie the Pooh is there. What struck me about Barnes and Noble was that they have embraced all the possible routes to sustainability in the selling of books in all their myriad forms. In print form, they sell general books, academic books, children’s books, new books, second-hand books, magazines, and they even offer a print-on-demand service: if it is available anywhere in the world (copyright permitting), in a few moments you can get a printed, perfect-bound paperback copy from their Espresso Book Machine. You can also print your own, self-published books. They claim to search through ‘millions of foreign-language, small-press and out-of-print titles’ to find just what you are looking for. Barnes and Noble, too, have entered the world of the ebook reader with their dedicated Nook device and Nook app that can be used on any smartphone or tablet. There is a large corner display for the Nook and Nook-related products (a Nook-nook?): ‘your endless escape to four million books, movies, apps and more’.

Besides books, Barnes and Noble also sell a huge range of book-related products: bookmarks, reading glasses, posters, postcards, tote bags, mugs, chocolate, and many more quirky artefacts; as well, they have a large café and a lecture area for hosting events. And of course they have a huge online presence (http://www.barnesandnoble.com/).

Strand Bookstore

Strand Bookstore. Credit: Wikimedia Commons, Postdif.

Fast forward to Tuesday morning and Strand Bookstore on 10th Avenue: an independent, family-run book shop, 85 years old and with 18 miles of books. How are they weathering the publishing and bookselling storms? Well, the first thing to greet me when I walked in was a huge poster announcing for sale ‘Real books priced lower than ebooks’ in huge letters, and then in smaller letters below ‘Fact: unlike an ebook a real book may be resold or given as a gift’. Interesting—the distinction is not ebook vs printed book, but ebook vs ‘real’ book, an interesting definition for us to ponder. When is a book not a ‘real’ book? When it’s an ebook? This is one bookseller’s perception—is it a reader perception and do we need to interrogate this?

'Real' book vs ebook prices.

‘Real’ book vs ebook prices. Credit: Marilyn Deegan.

Strand sells new, second-hand and remaindered books, and has a quirky and varied selection. Many of their books fit in well with our academic book definitions: historical, philosophical, scientific, literary works; translations; textbooks, you name it. And, like Barnes and Noble, there is a huge range of associated book products, the oddest being finger puppets/fridge magnets in the guise of famous authors, produced by The Unemployed Philosophers’ Guild. See below the puppet of Jane Austen being modelled by Kathryn Sutherland, chair of our Project Board and distinguished Austen scholar. The UP Guild website is worth a visit, by the way. Their strapline is ‘the unexamined gift is not worth giving’, and as well as a range of strange philosophical products (e.g, the Euclid mug announcing, Here’s looking at Euclid) there is an Existential Question box ‘click here to speak with us’. (http://www.philosophersguild.com/)

Jane Austen finger puppet

Jane Austen finger puppet. Credit: Marilyn Deegan.

Wednesday morning and I am in the bookstore at the New York Public Library—the Readers and Writers Shop. All the books here are new, again there is a huge range of book-related artefacts (many very specifically library-related) and there is a range of retro writing tools: elaborately decorated (and expensive) notebooks; pen and ink sets; desk accessories. My favourite is the Windsor Travel Pen Set (http://www.thelibraryshop.org/AUTHENTIC-MODELS-Windsor-Travel-Pen-Set-41641) ‘For the traditionalist on the go, this wooden box contains two wooden styluses, two bottles of ink, and a variety of nibs. Storage compartments are lined with marble paper.’ Who, I wonder, actually uses something like this? Who is this ‘traditionalist on the go’?

The heartening thing in these book shop visits was that all of them were crowded and obviously doing a brisk trade. Another thing that I noticed (and not just in book shops) was the rise of the retro: notebooks, pens, print artefacts, but also lots of shops selling vinyl records and turntables, and cafes with turntables and scratchy records; and a whole range of different kinds of film cameras available everywhere. The relevance of this to the academic book of the future is the hybridness of digital and material objects. Many material things of course can never be digital, but of those that can (texts, music, images), there seems to be a move back to the physical.

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