Why bookstores matter—a very pragmatic reason

No high-mindedness here, like keeping locals employed or giving neighborhoods nice places for coffee and conversation. We really need bookstores because…


I’m looking for a copy of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s last completed novel, Tender Is The Night. The problem is there are two versions. Originally Fitzgerald published it in installments in Scribner’s magazine, and the first book version followed that format, with flashbacks through the story that made the narrative, as we love to say today, non-linear. But more widely-known is the second version, prepared from the author’s revision. Fitzgerald died before he could incorporate the changes, which now makes the action chronological, but it’s believed he decided to revise based on poor critical reception and not because he thought the straight-forward structure was better.

The problem is I can’t figure out which version is being offered on Amazon. There are multiple editions of the book, including one that’s just come out. Yet nowhere in the product notes is there a way to tell which text I’m getting. (One that contained both for comparison would be ideal.)

In a bookstore I could find a stool, sit down, and crack open the object in my hands to figure out what I have. Amazon offers “virtual browsing” in the form of a feature called “Look Inside This Book.” But I can’t really tell by “looking inside” the book because they don’t give you much of a peek. You get mostly useless material—copyrights and title pages and cover art and legalese—and almost no actual content—not enough to tell me anything useful in most cases. A recent peek inside a book on Amazon, after legal notices and publishing info, yielded this much of a sample:

Amazon sample

The ability to page through a book is now simply gone. Amidst all this advanced technology we can’t do something our great-grandparents took for granted.

Look InsideAmazon and others usually offer a single chapter, usually the first. Sometimes one doesn’t even get that, but instead something random like every third page. The ones in between, we are told, are “blocked for copyright reasons.”

Aside from the fact that I can’t learn a lot about most books by reading the first chapter, or parts of the first chapter, this situation is bad because editors often tell writers they only want to see the first chapter and a synopsis, or maybe first and last and a synopsis. So writers—you can’t blame them—put a hell of a lot of furniture polish into that first chapter.

I’ve read many books recently that had terrific first chapters but otherwise dragged. As a consumer, I don’t want to base my purchasing decision on so little, and on only what the publisher wants me to see. I want to browse. (A bookstore chain from years ago used to boast the tagline, “Dedicated to the Fine Art of Browsing.”) I want to open randomly and see if a section grabs me.

Also, when there are many editions of a book, I want to compare different type-settings and book designs. This is particularly true with classics, where there are many editions. Some have easy-on-the-eyes type, some don’t. Some are printed on nice paper, others aren’t. Some have wide margins and lots of spacing and others feature crammed-together type, causing a headache.

With most online samples, you will be told the version you are viewing isn’t necessarily the same as the edition of the book you have clicked on. They use the same samples for every edition of the book, in other words. With translated works this is particularly annoying. I’ll be told that a certain translation is by far the best, only to click on that edition and have the “look inside” show me a different text. What I order and receive in the mail may be something else, and there’s no way I can know without buying.

It saddens me that we people who are so quick to blow hundreds (thousands, really, when you count the total costs) on our yearly smartphone, gamebox and movie habit, are so cheap with books that we let our bookshops go out of business in favor of the “look inside” model of retailing, all for a 20 or 30 percent discount on a $24 book. Money saved: seven bucks. Big deal. (I just saw an on-line review from a mother overjoyed to find an “inexpensive” pair of skinny jeans for her young daughter’s back-to-school. Price? $130.)

As someone who is hopefully going to have Entertaining Welsey Shaw selling on sites like Amazon and Barnes&Noble.com, I would like people to be able to see good-sized amounts of the book. I’d like them to be drawn into some moment of drama in the middle and decide they just have to see how it ends.

Because if they can’t do that, if they just get a quick gloss that looks like every other quick gloss, I fear they’ll just breeze over to something else a click away. Attention spans are already short. I fear that stingy sampling only encourages them to get shorter. The Xbox always awaits.


One response

  1. John –

    A very eloquent and elegant post. The best magazine out there couldn’t have said it any better. Especially now that they rarely hire good writers anymore.


    September 3, 2013 at 3:19 pm

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