Thursday, February 23, 2012

Should the value of a local independent bookstore be measured in more than dollars and cents?

First aired on Q (30/1/12)
Is the neighbourhood bookstore a romantic notion of the past, or are bookstores still important and vibrant hubs of culture and community? Slate Magazine's Farhad Manjoo published a controversial essay in December about how independent bookstores are "inefficient and outdated," which was criticized by several writers, including's Will Doig and novelist Salman Rushdie. Earlier this week on Q, Joanne Saul, who owns Toronto bookstore Type, took part in a debate with Manjoo about the value of the independent bookstore.
Manjoo argues that bricks and mortar bookstores are "cultish, mouldering institutions," and that online retail giant does more for literary culture. 
"My feeling is that I read more often now that I have an Amazon Kindle because I have instant access to books at a much larger selection, and because I can get a book basically any time I want," he said. "I think the most important factor in literary culture is people reading books and the most important force in recent times of people reading books has been Amazon's development of the e-reading platform, and everything else they do -- customer reviews, recommendations, all that stuff fosters more reading.... I think the idea that a bookstore is a local institution is a little misguided."
As the owner of a local bookstore, Saul naturally disagrees, and she expresses concern that Manjoo's contempt for bookstores stems from some unpleasant experience in one. 
"I don't think it's necessarily a case of either/or -- it can be a case of both/and. What I took issue with was the tone of [Farhad]'s argument -- it was so angry! Farhad sounded like he'd been really hard done by some independent bookstore in the past, and I'm sorry about that," said Saul. "I think that independent bookstores are trying very hard to survive and grow and thrive in an era that is very difficult. I was spurred on to open Type Books because I felt that there wasn't anything in my neighbourhood, in my community, a place where I wanted to shop, where I wanted to buy my books and to grow community." There are two different locations of Type, and each is a reflection of the neighbourhood it's in, says Saul. "When I go and buy books, I certainly have my neighbourhood in mind."
Manjoo called bookstores "user unfriendly" and "mistakenly mythologized," a claim that Saul finds baffling. "I think independent bookstores are extremely user-friendly," she said. "I have one of the most brilliant staffs around; my staff is full of people who write their own books - that's pretty local, we sell books that are actually written by authors who work at our stores.... These are smart people who understand what bookselling is. Bookselling is a craft."
Manjoo, meanwhile, takes issue with what he calls the "hectoring attitude of bookstore cultists." He thinks that, although all kinds of institutions are closing, people get more upset about bookstores closing than they do about other establishments. 
"Part of the argument is that [they think] something is going to happen to the culture...that people are going to read less and it's going to be very bad for literature," he said. "I think that some of the smarter bookstores will survive, but I'm mostly reacting to the idea that if bookstores die, literature dies, and I think that's obviously not true."
But Saul argues that stores like hers do foster a literary culture: "We do offer a gathering space, a place where there's human interaction, which I think is often a very good thing."

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