A few weeks ago, I heard about someone proposing marriage to someone inside a bookstore. It happened at a cookbook store down in San Francisco, called Omnivore Books. It sounded like the basic setup for a romantic comedy: Man proposes to Woman, Woman says yes while crying, happily ever after. Not that interesting to a passerby like me.
But then I saw a Tweet that had been written about it, by a woman named Eliane Wigzell: “Can’t do this on Amazon.”
That one line shook me more than the rest of the story, because of how simple and true it was. This past January Amazon announced that they’ve sold 120 e-books for every 100 paperback books so far in 2011 (for hardbacks, the ratio was 3 to 1). This scares people who love bookstores, a group of which I am a part. Will there ever come a day when a person will only be able to purchase books over the Internet? Will the bookstore no longer exist in the next generation?
Where I live, the answer to this seems to be: Not if we can help it! The Pacific Northwest has a long tradition of preserving and honoring bookstores. There are over 20 in my town alone. Portland, Oregon, is home to the largest bookstore in the United States — measuring out a full city block, Powell’s Books remains a popular destination for people looking for anything bound inside a spine.
The main location on Burnside Street is referred to as the City of Books (really!). I’ve been there, and I have to say, it’s easy to get lost amongst all the shelves. Nowadays, you can download a turn-by-turn map for the store for your smartphone! The influence of technology upon the world of books is growing. But to me, all this app says is that there’s still a group of people in the world who love bookstores.
It’s sometimes incredible to think about how long Powell’s has existed within Oregon, but in truth, it’s because they do more than sell books. Their store is littered with items like action figures, purses, and coffee mugs in addition to the classic bookstore items like journals and calendars.
But the planning for the future (and economic downturns) doesn’t just end at the main location. There’s a specialty store for books only centered on home and garden subjects. Powell’s also buys books from customers, either through the mail or in person. In order to stay alive in the economy, the store has needed to diversify.
Powell’s Books has a very active website. It posts events taking place at the store, publishes a book blog, and even (gasp!) sells e-books. But it’s safe to say that they’re still best known for their stores on the ground, for the color-coded sections and wooden stairs. People remember the enormous shelves, the book clubs, and the ever-mysterious Rare Book Room.
So for right now, I’m not worried about the future of bookstores. At this point, it’s still all about the paperbacks. And maybe a few hardbacks too.