booksebooks Development is a natural part of any civilization, but I think most people accept that the past few decades have blown the other millenia out of the water.  I swear, I blink and my cell phone grows another set of eyes.

However, I’m also hearing observations about trends in reverse – call it part of the back-to-basics movement.  I think it’s already in full force with our overt concern for the environment.  Line-drying, not drying machines; cooking at home vs. eating at Applebee’s; stay-cations vs. vacations.  And it crosses over into family values and education – I’m hearing a lot of calls for tough love, rather than cosseting.  (And in the meantime, our grandparents slap their foreheads and think, “Duh.”)  The recession undoubtedly played a big part; history shows that generally, in tough times, people get nostalgic and want to do what their gramps did, politically, socially, and economically.

And culturally, what did gramps do?  Well, for one thing, he listened to the radio, and if he could afford it, he listened to LPs.  A decade ago, CDs were in, cassettes were out, and LPs were absolutely dead.  Now the music aficionados are pumping their fists in the air, because LPs are Cool with a capital C.  They’re no longer relegated to secondhand and niche music stores – HMV, the biggest Canadian music chain store, carries a significant section of LPs, and artists like Radiohead and Coldplay release new albums on those crazy 33 ½” vinyls.

Yeah, iTunes is taking over the world.  Yeah, it took thirty years for LPs to come back.  However, they came back.  Whether this is a lasting niche or a passing fad, I haven’t the foggiest.  But clearly, there’s a sizable minority looking for old-school quality in their goods these days.  Call them what you will – geeks, snobs, over-privileged under-extended yuppies – but someone wants them.  And someone’s buying them.

Which brings me to the real topic of the day.  Even if you haven’t been online in a year, you’d have to know that the book industry is changing at a rate even insiders can’t believe.  Independent bookstores are fighting for survival.  Borders is on the verge of collapse.  Big chain bookstores diversify through non-book items, like children’s toys and gifts.  And, of course, we must hail the titanic rise of the mighty electronic book, or die.  (And no, I don’t think that’s hyperbole.  Much.)

Naturally, it would be lovely if the analog and digital could co-exist peacefully.  I love the convenience of the eBook and my Nook Color, but my heart lies in paper.   And although the pressure mounts inexorably against paper books, I think they’ll be around for a while yet.  The need is still great, on multiple levels, for libraries and print books in schools, not to mention in under-privileged areas.  As for physical bookstores, well, I work at one, and I am astounded and heartened at the number of people who still shop and browse at the bookstore.

Customers like hearing my accent (“Is it South African?  Australian?  Are you English?”)  They like it when cashiers don’t just ring up their books, and we take an interest in their purchases, discussing it with them.  They especially like it when we go out of our way to help them find a book, and recommend similar ones.  And yup: My “Let’s Talk Romance” badge is pinned front and centre.  Maybe I work at an exceptional branch of Chapters/Indigo, but I’ve found that there is a place for both the breadth and depth of the online community, as well as for face-to-face, human interaction.  You can’t substitute the one for the other.  Frankly, I think we’ve got the best of both worlds right now.

I can’t see the stand-off lasting much longer.  Unlike cassette tapes and VHS, which I so do not miss, I believe the world would be a poorer place without print books and brick bookstores.  Hopefully, books will never get to the point of near-extinction, as with vinyl records.  But even so, I draw hope from seeing those gallant LPs resurrected, in part by a confluence of socio-economic shifts, but mostly because people cared.

Do you think print books will ever disappear?  If they did, would you regret their absence?  And do you think they would ever come back?

– Jean AAR

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