Are bookstores becoming a relic of the past?
Today the Chapters on Robson street closed its doors and I spent a few hours wandering through it one last time. For someone who loves getting lost amid rows and rows of books, there’s something undeniably melancholy about seeing empty bookshelves in a place that would once strike me with fear over how laughingly few of these texts I would be able to get through in a lifetime.
There is no question that seeing two Chapters’ in the Lower Mainland close within a year of each other is hard. I’ve practically grown up in the one in Richmond and spent many more hours sitting in one of the wooden armchairs in the Robson one both before and after I started to live closer to it. You’ll pardon the very bad pun, I hope, but it really does feel as though a certain chapter is closing and leaving many uncetainties in its place.
If the country’s largest chain of bookstores cannot sell enough books, eReaders, Fitbits, Moleskine notebooks, American Girl dolls and other random tidbits to pay the rent what hope could any independent bookshop possibly have? Although the company has said that they will open a branch downtown in the future, there is something to be said on the fact that there cannot be one on the intersection of Robson and Howe. Why is a prime shopping location able to host stores that sell luxury clothes, caffeinated drinks and sporting gear (to the P.E. shirker within me, this last one is perhaps the greatest insult of all) but not books? Does this say something about our interests as a society? Do we value voracious reading less than we did a century ago?
To answer that, I look firstly to myself. I lead a fairly busy life. I’ve taken to reading on my iPad quite often in the last few years and there are certain features of it (the weightlessness of acquiring new books, especially) that I don’t particularly want to give up. Despite loving the physicality of actual books, I do not consider choosing to read on my iPad as a loss and I don’t think that I read any less because I’ve stopped checking books out of the library. I feel very strongly that, as time goes by and I get older, I will always want to reread On the Road despite the format for reading it that I will choose in those faraway years.
Still, I also sometimes get the sense that I am part of a somewhat exclusive club, a small subsection of the population. I do, after all, have a degree in English—it should go without saying that I like to read. Do other people, though? Is it still something that we do for fun? If we’re fully honest with ourselves, reading requires the kind of effort and concentration that we may not always be willing to extend. Despite having a reading list that is longer than the number of days in the year, I will often find myself slotting aside time for reading in a way that I would never need to do for checking my Facebook.
But despite all that, we still read and we still read a lot. We read blogs and we read Twitter feeds and we read news articles and, yes, we still read books. While grappling with an 800-page novel on serf life in the Russian Empire may not be everyone’s definition of a good time, we still continue to thrust ourselves into stories, experiences and lives that are so vastly different from our own through a variety of mediums. We still need to read to get information. We will always be affected by the words of those who are able to express what we have only felt and we will probably not stop seeking them out.
So where does this leave physical books for people who are not old enough to remember a time before the internet? Will the book you can flip through and smell go the way of the typewriter and only be enjoyed by the select few who continue to insist on it despite its obvious inconvenience?
Maybe, but there were also things that I saw when I walked into Chapters on several visits that were incredibly reassuring. People standing in line of twenty to buy books at a discounted price and sweeping volumes and volumes into their arms before they were picked up by others. A girl complaining about not being able to get to the store before all the good books were gone. Me not being able to find any John Galsworthy, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie or Alice Munro on the bookshelves because their works had been swept up as soon as the ‘50% off’ sale was announced.
While it is difficult to see just where this shift in reading styles will lead, it seems that most of us appreciate the bookstore and are not ready to let it go just yet. We seem to understand the inherent value of books and longform writing, but get too swept up in the fast pace of our lives to actually invest time in the venues that offer them. Maybe we only begin to truly appreciate bookstores when someone decides to take them away from us.