Years ago I spent a lot more time at bookstores than I do today. I could drop in and easily kill a few hours wandering the aisles, standing in front of the shelf reading portions of a book, and I’d find tons of stuff I wanted so I’d be forced to prioritize (based on finances) that which fell into the “must have today” category.
Somewhere along the way going to the bookstore became more and more infrequent for me. I’m not exactly sure why. One reason, I’m sure, is the time I spend on computers has increased while the time spent reading books has decreased. But I still enjoy reading even if I don’t do it as much as I used to.
So I found myself at the bookstore the other night. I had no expectations and wasn’t pondering any of the lofty thoughts above (at least at first). It was simply a fun activity to share with my wife.
Suffice it to say: The experience did not turn out well.
The first stop, of course, was the coffeehouse that was attached to the bookstore. Even though it was eight o’clock at night. On this particular trip that meant a Starbucks and a Barnes and Nobel. You start in the Starbucks, see all the trendy folks loafing about, and get your cup of joe. Well, actually, nothing like plain black coffee. That would be way too mundane. My wife had a caramel macchiato and I had a regular frappacino.
After obtaining drinks, we wandered through the shared wall into the bookstore. This is where we split to do our own perusing for a while. I looked at books ranging from science fiction to Photoshop to Calculus for Dummies (which was the leading contender for actual purchase.) I even found what will make a good present for my wife but of course I can’t mention that here.
It was during this period of time that I became aware that I wasn’t enjoying myself very much. Something was askew about the experience. It didn’t measure up to the way things used to be.
After this realization hit me, I stopped in my tracks and really put some thought into it. What has changed? I wondered.
The first thought was not subtle. It was all the goddamn fucking cell phones. Cutesy ring tones followed by the invariable, “Hello? <pause> Yeah, I’m at the bookstore.” Ooh, that sounds like such vital chit chat. Dammit! Talk about being taken out of the experience. It was so annoying and distracting. I ended up categorizing the hated “Phoners” (to put it into modern lingo). As much as possible I strategized and kept my distance from those filthy bastards.
The day I’m sworn in as President of the United States the first order of business will be an executive order making it illegal to talk on any phone more than eight feet from a wall-mounted telephone outlet. Yes, that’s about the distance an old-style land line cord would reach. That was plenty of reach when I was a kid and I see no reason at all to allow that distance to be exceeded. Period. I do not need to hear other motherfucka’s talking about their shit when I’m shopping for a book!
After that, though, the reason for changes in the experience became less obvious. I actually had to think.
The next thing I identified was this: Scanning the spine of a book is a really crummy way to conduct a search. It tells you literally next to nothing, especially if you’ve never heard of the book or the author. The power of the online search has spoiled me against the old-fashioned method of shopping books.
I realized I’ve been out of the literary loop for a while. All of my favorite authors only had their older “greatest hits” on display. That only made me feel disconnected and nostalgic.
The sheer volume of authors I’d never heard made me feel further pushed away. Without some sort grounding knowledge, I realized that absolutely nothing at all was capturing my interest and attention.
Part of the fun of browsing the bookstore used to be the unexpected “finds.” But that just wasn’t happening for me that night.
I did find one paperback that captured a modicum of interest. It was an older work by Dan Brown called Digital Fortress. It looked mildly intriguing until I noticed the price: $9.95. For a paperback? Sorry, but I have to be much more “wowed” by the book to spend that kind of money on a paperback. I bet in two visits or less I can find a copy at a local used book store and save a ton.
The closest I came to making a purchase was the Calculus for Dummies book. When I reconnected with my wife and she was ho hum about what she’d found, the die was cast. It wasn’t worth getting in line for our underwhelming and lukewarm finds. After about an hour of shopping we left the store without buying anything at all.
More than anything, I found myself feeling sad. The fun experience of shopping at the bookstore was now a thing of the past. Something enjoyable had been lost.