Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Bookstore Obit #244583

On this snowy New England day, perhaps you, dear reader, have not read that opinionated old coot Richard Posner's latest blog entry, in which he poses the headline question, "Can Bookstores Survive?" His answer seems to be, in a nutshell, "good news: no!"

I appreciate Posner laying out the pros and cons of bricks-and-mortar stores versus online stores, though I suspect his reasoning is flawed. He says, basically:

Brick pro: "The only offsetting advantages of the bookstore are the opportunity it provides for browsing and the fact that the customer can see and handle the book before buying it." Notice the diminishing use of "only" here.

Online pro: There are five of these-
1) artificial-intelligence programs that can recommend other books for readers
2) bigger inventory available
3) "ease of search"
4) reader reviews available
5) the ability of customers to look inside a book before ordering it, which Posner admits is "much as if he were leafing through a printed book in a bookstore." Indeed.

Once again, I'm struck by the need for efficiency. Posner talks about the social savings, basically the time wasted traveling to bookstores to get a book that may or may not be there. But I'm not a machine; I don't need everything to work out. Haven't we all realized that it is when things don't work out, in fact, that we often find what we need, even if we weren't looking for it? I hate to sound flaky or like some damn fool by arguing for flawed systems, but I also think it's so male and so kind of pathetic to demand that everything in this world be based entirely around efficiency.

Posner goes on to break down where money is being saved and how it will impact the publishing industry, and he ultimately finds that publishers and authors should not be hurt in the move from bricks-and-mortar stores to online venues for books sales. In fact, they may increase. The only way for bookstores to survive this increasingly efficient world is if "unless the services are valued by a greater margin than seems realistic to expect." This is what I call "mean Dad" talk - cold, unemotional, and unapologetic. I suppose I can't blame the messenger.

What disturbed me here, however, was Posner's conclusion, in which he sees this change as a good one. Sorry independent bookstores, he seems to be saying, but the online sales venues will make for "genuine economic progress, just as department stores and supermarkets represent progress though they cause the demise of countless small retailers." I wrote - in PEN, on PAPER, not on the screen - "yikes" at this line, as I had visions of Wal-marts dancing in my head.

Guess we have to increase those margins, reader.

1 comment:

Biblibio said...

I'm not an anti-online person, but wow... these are some of the strangest claims I've ever read. There's room for a reasonable argument on the matter, but Posner's arguments are so simplified and just weird. How can one argue that it's better for the economy to have giants gobbling up small retailers? I'm honestly baffled.