Monday, June 25, 2012

A Certain Kind of Serendipity

It's not been the greatest few days for aficionados of the printed word. Last week, the Toronto Star reported that the World's Biggest Bookstore, which isn't really but no matter because it's one hell of a catchy name, may be closing in December 2013 when the lease runs out. The condo developers are already circling like vultures, because everyone knows that the best way to ensure a livable, sustainable city is to build a thirty-story green-glass condo tower on every last parcel of land.

Here on the west coast, that sort of thing is already the way things go. Yesterday Does Your Mother Know? in Kitsilano, to my knowledge the only dedicated magazine store in Metro Vancouver, closed its doors thanks to steadily slowing business, attributed to the rise of smartphones and ereaders. I'll be honest, I only ever went in there once or twice, but that's just because Kits is way the hell out of my way. I don't know of any other place in the city that sells Atlantis Rising Magazine, which with its focus on UFOs, healing pyramids, free energy, and so on is probably the single most Fortean thing on the stands. I've certainly never seen it at Chapters.

This news, again, makes me glad that I do not own a smartphone or an ereader, because it means I do not need to feel a twinge of guilt about how my purchasing habits affect the broader economy. What it does mean is that Ray Bradbury had a certain point when he said "we've got too many internets." The internet's biggest problem is easy to overlook - it's what it overturns, it's what's left wrecked in its wake by its passing.

I feel like this ties in to what I wrote about earlier this month, regarding the practical invisibility of science fiction magazines to the people who'd be most likely to buy them. Put simply, the end of physical stores means the end of a certain kind of serendipity, the end of traditional discovery.

The World's Biggest Bookstore in Toronto. You'd think I'd have a shot or two of it somewhere in those forty thousand photos, but apparently not.

When I go to a bookstore, unless I'm checking to see if the new Analog and Asimov's are finally out yet, I don't know what I'm getting or even if I'm going to get anything. That's even more true when I visit a used bookstore, the sort of place that made me aware of the possibilities that were out there to begin with. Walking the shelves in a magazine store leaves you open to discovery, primed for finding things you didn't even know you were looking for. In a store you look this way and that, bouncing from thing to thing, making discoveries you would never have thought to look for yourself. Perhaps you didn't even know they existed.

In contrast, the online catalogs I've used on the exceedingly rare occasions I've bought books off the internet - cases in which the particular book I was looking for just couldn't be found anywhere in the physical realm - have been set up with the assumption that you already know what you want. None of the online directories I have experience with are able to replicate the ease of browsing, of having your attention drawn by a particular book's spine or title or cover. Sometimes it's the unexpected finds that are the sweetest, like when I found a weathered copy of The Third Industrial Revolution in Powell's, a book that's been out of print for decades.

The migration to electronic readers takes away a lot of that. Nothing has to go out of print when it's digital, and there goes the thrill of finding something that's hard to find. So too goes the ease of serendipity. Granted, it's not like things are on the ropes yet - though things aren't looking quite as resilient as they were a few years ago.

But if places like Powell's end up closing, then we might as well just let the world wind down.

No comments:

Post a Comment