Death of a (Bookstore) Salesman


Growing up, we never had a bookcase in the house. The children were taken to the library, but adults reading as a leisure activity never seemed to rate. So of course we didn't really go to bookstores either. The realm of the bookshop was closed to me till about age twelve, when I started to go to the mall by myself. My goodness...what a world was opened to me. I didn't care much for clothing stores, and discovery of real music was still about a year away (when I listened to Nevermind in it's entirety on a friend's Walkman on a school trip to Sydney...another story!) but book shops set my imagination on fire. Libraries never had that effect on me and I don't know why. It wasn't the stories in the books that stirred me. It was the possibility that one day, just maybe, I would walk into a bookstore and see a book about me, or written by me, on the shelf. I visualised the blurb, my name in embossed metallic type, the author photo. I knew what I was put on this Earth to do - write the book, or live the life worthy of having a book written about. I set myself to the task with gusto, filling endless stacks of exercise books and allowing myself nearly twenty years of stupid mistakes as "experiences" for future biographers to pore over. Who knows how things might have turned out differently if not for this formative influence? I vowed that one day I would have a house with walls lined with books; and I have.

So it was with disappointment I read of yet more bookstore closures, with Angus and Robertson to shut another 42 branches this week. We may soon see the saddest of phenomena - the mall with no bookstore. It's easy to sneer at the Westfields of the world - god knows in the inner west we do it all the time and sniff that we only shop at independent booksellers - but the truth is that for kids in the outer suburbs they're all they have. On teenage trips to Sydney, I would always head for George St Dymocks, which would practically send me into sensory overload (thank God it at least is still there) - Borders at the time was unknown and would have had an even more rapturous effect on me, it too has since gone down the tube -  but normally it was the suburban Angus and Robertson or Collins Booksellers (remember them?) that satiated my book lust.

Predictably the death of the bookstore has been blamed on online bookselling. Yeah, well I dunno. Books in Australia are astonishingly expensive, I will admit, often more than twice the price of importing from overseas even when one allows for postage fees. But it's just not the same. Buying books online, you often need to know what you're looking for, and it just doesn't have that delicious sense of possiblity that comes from visiting an actual bookshop. I love to browse through the design section at Kinokuniya, thinking I might like to buy all those books or none of them, imbued with creativity and inspiration for my own visual journal. When I went to buy a book I particularly desired online later - at less than half the price the store charged - the magic was, somehow, gone.

Then there's the e-book. Maybe it's a generational thing, and I'm just too damn old to understand. Maybe a generation of future writers are getting fired up by the Kindle. But for me it's just lacking something. There's something about the aesthetic beauty of shelves of shiny books in a bookstore, about opening up a crisp new volume, turning the undisturbed pages, the new-book smell, that electronic letters on a glowing rectangle can never hope to match.

It's a little death, one of many in modern society - small record shops went a few years back - but I can't help but be sad the suburban bookstore is going. I won't get to introduce my kids to them. Sadder still of course is the thought of losing a future generation of potential writers who, robbed of inspiration, will put away their journals and focus on schoolwork, get into decent courses at uni, and wind up with successful careers in commerce and industry. Depresses the hell out of me.

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