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Farewell, old friends

32 Books in West Vancouver

32 Books in West Vancouver

This is a sad, two hanky, story.

Over the years I have collected over 1000 books. Because I became ill, it was necessary to convert the room at the very bottom of our townhouse into my bedroom and workshop. This required pulling down most of the bookshelves. Our townhouse is very small so now we have a problem – what the hell to do with all these books?

Wendy boxed the books – something like 30  or more boxes in all. We still have a few book shelves
left in my new room but nowhere near enough to look after what I have. This has meant that we have got to give away all these books, probably 600-700 in all.

The drill is that Wendy brings the boxes down and we look through them and I must announce whether or not I will keep it, bearing in mind my very limited space left, or give it away.

In giving a book away, for me, it’s like giving away a Labrador puppy. Each of these books I remember getting and each one sort of tells me a bit of a story. I remember why I bought the book and how pleased I was when it arrived. I remember, of course, that sometimes I was disappointed and didn’t read the book or only read partway. On the other hand far more of them brought supreme joy.

At this point, I have perhaps given away one half of the available books. I’m not quite sure what to do with the others however I think I will try libraries.

There is one benefit to all this – I find that some of the books that I did not read for one reason or another suddenly appear quite readable now. Because I am rather confined to barracks and am either writing or reading this gives me a lot of new material with which to work.

The second part of this saga is the sorrier one.

For about 20 years I used to visit New Zealand once a year to go fishing  At the end of each trip I would stay with friends in Howick, a suburb of Auckland. In the village there was a lovely used bookstore which I frequented.

Let’s back up. Book stores  for me are irresistible, especially used ones. As I have traveled around British Columbia giving speeches and the like my first stop after the hotel is the local bookstore. I cannot remember going into a bookstore, new or used, for the first time that I did not buy a book. This is one of the reasons I have the problem above.

I have also been in bookstores in some of the strangest parts of the world. On the Isle of Staffa, a small island in the inner Hebrides, I was flabbergasted to find a small bookstore. I bought a book. I even found a bookstore in Budapest which had 50 English books in it – I bought two!

Back to Howick.

The other day I was going through some books and I chanced upon a bookmark from this particular bookstore. As I thought about it I remembered that I am missing two books about our family which is a New Zealand pioneer family.  I thought a good idea would be to write my friends in Howick and see if they have them and if so I would order them. To make a long story short, I find that they are now closed.

This, unhappily, is not an uncommon story. Small bookstores are closing all over the world. They  can no longer compete with the Giants and as it turns out the Giants can’t compete with themselves either. The e-book has slowly but steadily taken over the business.

So far, so good for my own bookstore in Edgemont Village in North Vancouver called “32 Books”. My invariable practice is to go to Chapters or Indigo to “case” the books and if I find something I want to go to 32 Books to get it. Even if they don’t have it, it only takes a few days to get it. This is my own little way of supporting the small bookstore.

We now know that a number of the large book companies, in the United States, are in trouble. Amazon has driven them to the wall.

Many are gone. Others are on the brink.

I now worry about London.

Because of illness I have not been to London for two years but when I go I can’t stay away from the wonderful used bookstores, especially on Charing Cross Road. To think that they may not be there the next time I go is something too hard to contemplate. It’s bad enough that the compact disc has gone so that HMV, that marvelous music store, is Gone too. We pay a hell of a price for progress.

What is the future of the small bookstore? Is it already In its death throes?

Certainly, at this point, the outlook isn’t brilliant. Amazon, which had such a shaky start, now is one of the dominant companies in the world. Even Wendy and I have Kindles. They came about because we were badly overcharged taking some books on an airplane for a cruise and we vowed it would never happen again. It would have been cheaper for us to throw the books away and buy them again when we got home.

The Kindle has, of course, great advantages. Books are cheaper – indeed for older books they are often free or nearly so. They can be stored in limitless quantities and they are easy to read.

The problem is they are not books.

Kindles are ugly and certainly will never take the place of books on the shelf. They don’t feel like books and don’t look like books and don’t act like books.

The question now is whether or not the takeover has been complete or whether there will be some balance struck so that real books still have a role to play. And I especially think of used books.

A great deal of rubbish has been printed over the years, of course. There is no reason these books should have survived, Kindle or no Kindle. But what about other good books? What about the classics? Will  there still be a market for them in spite of Kindle?

I badly want to be optimistic. But I am old and of another generation. I have to understand that younger people will grow up utterly unused to books as I knew them. It’s rather like the computer itself. I use a computer but very unskillfully even  though I’ve had one for 30 years. I am constantly getting advice over the very simplest of things and as all of you know, your eight-year-old grandchild Is where you often get your advice if you’re old.

Sadly, the Kindle will not be bringing us things like “letters”. I have always loved to read books of people’s letters, however I cannot see books of emails coming out. What other effects the electronic age will have on writing remain to be seen.

I have  spoken and written both ways on this subject. Sometimes I have been optimistic and said that people will always want the heft and the feel of a book. Other times I have considered the book to be dead.

Unfortunately, I’m in a pessimistic mood. In my  lifetime, not long to go, there will always be books. My generation will be satisfied for their remaining years.

The e-book is, however, unstoppable. It is just too convenient and too cost effective. Even on cruises with older folks I noticed now the Kindle is as prevalent as the book.

The bottom, and very sad line is that the book as we know it will be, in this generation, a dead duck.

Worst of all people a few years hence will not even remember what it was like to open, feel, and read a book.

4 Responses to “Farewell, old friends”

  1. admin says:

    Lots of common ground here. I’m another one of those people who can’t pass a used book store. Breakwater Books in Powell River is a good one, and I’ve discovered a good one in Mexico City, Under the Volcano (http://underthevolcanobooks.com/ ), run by a guy from Seattle.
    I had to prune my book collection a couple of times in the process of downsizing for retirement and moving to Mexico. I tried to keep the discarded ones in circulation; some of them went to Renaissance Books in New Westminster (which I’ve heard is doing fine), and others went to the aforementioned Under the Volcano.
    I, too, have a Kindle, and get a lot of use out of it. I’ve had mixed results with mail-ordering books from Abe Books; sometimes they get here, and sometimes they don’t. It’s more convenient, and just makes a lot more sense to download e-books. I think paper books will survive, but it’s going to be interesting to see how that goes.
    Finally, I visited Budapest in 2009, in the last months of the Iron Curtain era. I discovered a bookstore with a good English-language book selection within an hour after I got there, and it was like an oasis. I had been on bicycling trip in what is now the Czech Republic for the previous two weeks, and because the Stalinist government there, there was no access to English-language newspapers or magazines, and no English-language books. I had finished the the few books I had brought with me (I was traveling by bicycle, remember) and had to start re-reading one of them.

  2. Dan says:

    I grew up in a house with books all over the place and I still have a messy and evolving bedside table full of periodical and bookish offerings. However, I have come to believe that a book should be read, and, with the exception of the rare volume that demands a re-read, I’ve taken to turning the others loose in nature, either by passing them off to people who might want to read them or by shoving them in the return at the local library. Do they get read? not my problem, but there always seem to be new tomes to take the place of those that waltz out the door, and the bastards just keep writing more. I’ve discovered that it’s not important that I finish La comédie humane, and I get to read what I want when I want, but I won’t go to my grave (I’m a little ways behind you, but not so far that I can’t see the horizon) unhappy with my own store of knowledge and letters and I really care too much what anyone else thinks, a sentiment to which I suspect you might subscribe.

  3. Tom Palfrey says:

    Another premature book obituary….there will always be people who like books and who cherish and read them, admire their typography, layout, their illustrations, their binding, their smell and the rest of the human race can kindle to their hearts content. To my knowledge most methods of dispensing written and visual information are still in use, from quill, to pen, to printing press, the computer is but an extremely smart typewriter, (with a worldwide library attached).

    Calligraphy is still practiced, as is font design and traditional bookbinding with marbled endpapers, stamped leather covers, illumination etc.

    There was a time when photography was predicted to erase the need for painted portraits or landscapes, instead it became another mode of visual communication. One thing does not necessarily replace another but becomes another arrow in the quiver of choices we can make.

    There is always a group of like minded individuals who are never slaves to fashion or trends who will pursue their unique predilections, regardless of the difficulties.

    a committed bibliophile

  4. Aidan Coles says:

    As much as I hate to agree, I believe you are correct. As an author, trying to flog my wares to the general public, the most common response I get to not buy my book is “I don’t read.” I do believe that is the perceived polite way to say, ” Go away strange man trying to sell me something.” But I do have faith. My book is selling in stores. And although our local used book store is for sale, it does still have a purpose. Going on a ecotrip, away from technology, a book is allowed. And it doesn’t need recharging, updating or break 5 days after the warranty runs out. E readers are a wonderful tool but, as said, they are not a book. Books are not dead, they are just sitting patiently on the sidelines until asked to dance.

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