Don’t Sit in the Aisle

Posted on July 6, 2011

4


The large reading room at the LOC that permits anyone to sit and read one of the 33 million books from its 838 miles of shelving.

Don’t get me wrong.

I don’t think a bookstore is a library, and I don’t treat it like one.

I have a perfectly good local library I can abuse.

And we’ve abused it enough.

And we’ve contributed to the additional abuse it can hope to have in the future.

But, bookstores are in the business of promoting reading for the sake of sales.

One way to promote reading and potential sales is to make the reading environment as comfortable as possible.

One way to make the environment as comfortable as possible is to offer places to sit.

In the bookstore we frequent, there are no longer places to sit except for the hard benches at the magazine racks, the hard benches in the children’s section, and the hard wooden chairs that accompany the impossibly small baby-butt-sized tables in the pseudo-café that isn’t Starbucks but serves Starbucks coffee.

There were once plenty of chairs and comfy leather soft seats that concluded each bookshelf and end-cap.  There were once groups of chairs huddled together in corners.  They must have had some falling out.  The leathernecks couldn’t stand the liberal ethos of the woodies.  They split and ran on squat stocky legs to retirement homes for chairs: second-hand stores.

Guess who they met there? All those book remainders that were pulled from the shelves that were once read by corpulent butts who decided to eventually buy a book or two from said bookstore.

Without any more comfy chairs, with the café filled with people staring at laptops, and the children’s “reading stage” filled with unruly children and teens, there are no more pleasant places to sit in the bookstore.

On the same day we encountered one of the worst non-English capable persons working in an English-necessary workplace, we decided to read The Girl some books in the children’s section.

After my brain had melted from the farcical encounter I had at the customer service counter, I found Kokkiree reading a book to The Girl.

They were sitting in the children’s section next to the stacks.  They were sitting on the floor!

Cue horror music screeching violin.

So I joined them!

Cue second horror music screeching violin.

There were three of us sitting on the floor in the aisle.  We were quietly reading a book to The Girl who was listening patiently.

Two people on separate occasions walked past without us having to slide our rears over.  In fact, there was probably enough room for a wheelchair to glide by us.

The Girl next chose a book for me and I began to read it to her.  I was about two pages from the end when we were approached.

“You can’t sit in the aisles.  There are chairs in the cafe or on either end of this area for you to sit.”

It was the same lady from the customer service counter.  She knew how to do this job quite well.  Stop people from enjoying the bookstore.

“You need to move.  You can’t sit there.”

“Okay, well then let’s go,” we said.

The Girl was disappointed because we didn’t finish the book.  “Can we finish?  I want to buy one of the books to read.  Can we get one?”

“No,” I said.  “Not today.  I don’t think that first one was any good anyway.”

“No,” said Kokkiree.  “We’re not buying anything from here because clearly they don’t know how to let people enjoy a bookstore.  Seriously, these people don’t know how to operate a bookstore.”

The store lost sales that day.  I did plan on buying a book myself.  Yes, I can order from them online.  But, I won’t.  I’ll order from another online bookseller.

I was also going to buy The Girl a book that day.  She’d been so good and patient and she does love reading books.

I’ve done it many times.  I’ve taken The Girl to the bookstore to read a book to see if she likes it.  If she does, and she really shows an interest, I’ll buy it for her.  The last time was with the Fantastic Mr. Fox.  She ended up reading the whole thing by herself in one day.

That was after she had spent a ton of time reading in the aisle on the floor in the children’s section.

So why was this time different?  Was the woman mad that I made her work extra hard looking up a book?  Was she upset that I openly and visibly became frustrated with her lack of language skills?  Was she merely enforcing company policy that states that no people shall be allowed to sit in the aisles or on the floor?

While any one of those options may be true, what was it that I was truly lamenting?

___________________________________________________________

Back in the 1990s the super-bookstore was created.  Books-A-Million,  Barnes and Noble, Waldenbooks, and the now bankrupt Borders that is in the process of closing more and more stores.

Do you remember B. Dalton?  Yeah, neither did I.  At its peak it operated nearly 800 stores nationwide and was posting the highest profit margin of any bookstore in the nation.  Currently Barnes and Noble, who took over B. Dalton and finally closed them out in 2010, operates just about 800 stores nationwide.

During the boom of the 90s superstore, I was in the college.  Having grown up primarily using libraries, I wasn’t sure what to make of the massive Books-A-Million installed in my college town.  I’d also heard whispered through the hanging moss that avoiding the campus bookstore was a freshman necessity.

Instead, I would walk to the corner bookstore that had been there since 1970.  It’s tiny footprint was exaggerated by being on the busiest corner in the college town.  There I would find a highly knowledgeable and friendly staff.  They could recommend a new book, an old book, or how to find a book.  If they didn’t have it, they would get it.

When I became the editor of the university’s literary magazine, I would stop by the bookstore and drop off stacks of journals recently printed.  They would even display them prominently on the counter where there was only one cashier.

They didn’t need twenty copies of every book, they only need two or three.  They barely had room for magazines, but you could find a wonderful selection of them along the back wall (an unpleasant roommate was caught shoplifting an adult magazine when he tried to put it in his pants).

I supported the local store because it was a place that made me feel important.  It was a place that made me feel like I was part of something bigger and more significant.

That is the draw of the independent bookstore.  Refusing to shop at the superstore is a way to exercise political freedom.  You’re denying your dollars to the giant corporations that line the pockets of self-interest and continue to lobby government for less oversight.  By supporting the indie we are rejecting the over-commercialization of books, and refusing to buy into the influence of media controls.

But, that may be all we’re doing.  Like I said, most people who claim to only use the indie store are living a lie.  You are merely part of a social machine that makes you feel like you’re more culturally aware and more hipster than what you actually are.  You want to think that you’re being more obscure by patronizing the indie, but in reality, the superstore probably has an even wider selection of literaria obscura than your small indie.

___________________________________________________________

Surely what I was lamenting was the bookstore experience that would cultivate a love of reading and learning about new and various voices.

What indie bookstores feature on displays are different than what Barnes and Noble displays with prominence.

Sure, B&N still display interesting voices, and sure what they do recommend is generally well-written, but clearly B&N is not the voice of culture I want to follow.

Take for example the following display recently encountered at the local B&N.

Does B&N think they can save the world one book at a time when they can't even keep up with the controversy surrounding these books?

What you see is a display that shouldn’t include several of those titles for they have been challenged and admittedly fabricated half-truths.  So how does B&N get away with promoting these books as saving the world?  Surely they are not the gatekeepers I want minding the door when Snookie walks in with a pen and paper to “write” her memoir.

Yet, sure enough you can also find that book at B&N.

So was getting kicked out of the local branch of the superstore merely a signal the death of the literary experience?

_________________________________________________________

We first need to look at the literary experience as part of the greater social structure.

Are books read in isolation?  Generally.

So why then do we need a social arena – the bookstore or library – to find a book?

We don’t.  We have the internet.

The death of the indie bookstore and the death of the bookstore experience are also precursors to the death of the superstore.

Just this year Borders filed for bankruptcy and began closing hundreds of stores nationwide.  Yet, Borders still is making money through its online sales.

And that is where the market is going: online sales and e-books.  The e-book market has outpaced the physical book market in growth.  Online sales giant, Amazon, makes almost as much money than B&N and Borders combined.

Literacy has increased, and overall book publishing has also increased in the past decade.  Library use has also increased with the economic slump pushing people towards using free services than buying books.

Yet, when I go the local library, the majority of people are students studying books they’ve brought from school, children’s book readers (families), or people taking up the internet and wi-fi bandwidth.  Rarely do I see people actually checking books out.

And why should they?

Libraries are now becoming “idea stores” that promote literacy by doing the same thing bookstores are doing.  Appealing to the masses.  Libraries have to do this because if they don’t, they will eventually lose funding and close.  Libraries are also now functioning as multi-purpose places where you can take an adult education class, vote in your local/national election, and hold conferences and meetings on just about any topic.

Furthermore, libraries have free wi-fi where people can generally bring in their e-reader or iPad or laptop and just download an entire book for free via the internet.

So do bookstores.  Bring your Nook to B&N and you can read a new book for free during a brief 30 minute period while using the wi-fi.

But, how does B&N expect you to come in and sit for 30 minutes and read your Nook when there aren’t anymore comfortable seats for you to relax your ponderous head?  When the café is filled with teens and the children’s section is filled with tweens, where are you going to sit?

The floor in the aisle?

Clearly not.

___________________________________________________________

Reading is done in isolation, but the experience is shared.

We want to communicate with others about what we’ve read and what we’re reading in order to feel like we belong (see above).  We need to feel like we have something shared with others to help us identify with our societal niche.

Heck, even I share what I’ve read or am reading on my sidebar ========>

The library can be one of those places where you feel like you’re sharing some experience.  Yet, it’s failing in that aspect because it relies primarily on people coming to merely use the wi-fi.  But, you can’t drink coffee or water in a library.  Also, you aren’t allowed to talk too much in libraries.  People look at you funny.

Unless you’re in Florida.  Then by all means…go ahead and use your cellphone while sitting at a desk next to people studying and reading.

So the bookstore is left to be the place where one can sit and enjoy a coffee.

Again, if  you can find a place to sit.

And although literacy is on the rise, and book sales and reading and publications are also on the rise, reading comprehension is stagnant and/or falling.

Sure we can blame standardized testing and the lack of quality teachers, but in reality, part of the problem is that the reading experience is no longer being promoted.

Isolation is valued.

Buy online.  Read online.  Share online.

This isolationism deteriorates our reading culture in such a way that prevents readers from having a large significant social culture to help inform our reading.

_____________________________________________________________

All of this went through my mind for the whole day.

Yet, there is hope on the horizon.  Indies still survive.  Some do it online like Powells and Abe, and others do it in the flesh like Shakespeare and Co. and Politics and Prose.

Luckily, we are moving to a place where there are indie bookstores that promote, not only reading and sharing, but a culture of consumer appreciation.

Some bookstores want you to actual come and sit and stay.

These stores, like The Last Bookstore in LA and City Lights Books, want you to come in and open a book and read something.  They want you to enjoy the culture of literacy and feeling of belonging.

After all, in this current state of cultural stupidity, we need bookstores to help out in anyway possible.

Jerry Seinfeld once said, “A bookstore is one of the only pieces of evidence we have that people are still thinking.”

Guess you never visited a bookstore in Florida, Jerry?

Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

Advertisements