Monday, August 10, 2009

Seredipity and the Changing Commercial Landscape

A few days ago I read this article; the author argues that the rise of online shopping, coupled with the slow decline of bricks-and-mortar shops selling books and music, combined with the popularity of electronic readers and music players, has meant that our choices in media are actually more limited and that it's become more difficult to find things by accident. It's hard to stumble on that obscure book you'd never seen before, or a band you've never heard of. You can't scan someone's CD collection, or see what they're reading on the bus; online shopping means your selection is limited to what Amazon and iTunes decides to show you, which is calculated by proprietary, unknowable algorithms and capitalistic priorities.

I've long believed that online shopping for books and music loses the serendipity of wandering through a bookstore (or record store), pulling this or that off the shelf, browsing, hunting. I love shopping at both independent bookstores and chains, not to mention used bookstores. As long as there's lots to browse, I'm a happy bibliophile. I love it when I find indie bookstores that have an idiosyncratic selection, those that don't just put out this month's Indie Next List but really make an effort to find things that are off-the-beaten-path and shows knowledge of the area or even the neighborhood. You can't get that online.

Same with music. Have you ever had the experience of walking into a record store and hearing something great on the speakers, asking what it is and walking out with a great new album you never knew existed? I've found so many of my favorite artists that way. Mary Lou Lord, The Old 97s, Coralie Clement, and more. I never would have heard of them any other way.

When I was in college, and even into my twenties, I would spend hours in the music stores of Boston and Cambridge, large and small- the huge HMV with its listening stations and aisles of music from all over the world, a cramped hipster basement in Nantucket, used vinyl shops in Cambridge, it didn't matter. And I can't tell you how thrilled I was when Virgin Megastore- a world-class music emporium- opened in Boston, and how heartbroken I was when it closed.

And yes, I shopped there right to the bitter end. Once, I bought what I thought was a CD of Clement's jazzy French pop, only to find out the disc actually contained music by a Mexican mariachi band. When I went in to exchange it, I walked out with not only a new CD and no hassles, but also a great suggestion from the staff about another French singer I might like. Would iTunes be so helpful?

As a child, browsing in used bookstores formed the basis of my literary education. I would never have read Carlo Levi's Christ Stopped at Eboli, or Tolstoy's The Death of Ivan Ilych, or a hundred other books, had I been limited to online shopping. In college, the Harvard Coop in Cambridge and Waterstone's in Boston were the dual mother ships of books; I couldn't get enough of browsing their displays and wandering their stacks. Not only did I find wonderful books in their aisles but wonderful people- once I even bumped into a long-lost friend and fellow bookworm at Waterstone's cafe. I wouldn't have found him browsing online.

I've recently given up online shopping for books- I deleted my Amazon account and keep my wishlist on a pad of paper. I do maintain a wishlist on IndieBound.org, but it's just for family to use for holiday gift-giving, not for me to buy from. And it's easy for me to say that it's no problem relying on bricks-and-mortar- I live in one of the best bibliophilic cities in the country. Our neighborhood music and bookshops deserve our support, not just for their sake but for ours. When they lose, we lose more than just another storefront- we lose the opportunity for learning and discovery.

13 comments:

claire said...

That is so true. I've discovered countless musicians and authors that way. While I do order online, I love going to bookstores even more. Can't replace the feeling of serendipitous discovery.

Nina said...

Thanks for this. I agree with you, and find it even harder living in the environment I do (Ghana in West Africa)where there are a very, very limited number of bookshops. And most of these tend to cater to a school or academic market - not exactly satisfying to an avid fiction reader. I do use Amazon - to check prices, read blurbs and some reviews, and maintain a wish list, but do very little ordering from them (partly because of extremely expensive freight costs, among other matters). I enjoy reading your blog, and do follow up.

debnance said...

I, like Nina, live in a book-thin world (okay, Texas is not quite as thin as Ghana, maybe). Online book groups...Amazon...blogs...these saved my reading life.

Nymeth said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Nymeth said...

I love brick and mortar stores too, especially ones with enthusiastic and knowledgeable staff. But I live in a small Portuguese town, so sadly without online shopping my access to books would be extremely limited. I admire your efforts to support your local bookstores, though! Your post reminded me of The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop by Lewis Buzbee, which deals with some of those same questions. If you haven't read it yet, I highly recommend it.

rhapsodyinbooks said...

I love serendipity too, but I think you really not only need brick and mortar but indie brick and mortar stores! You are very fortunate to live in such a book-rich environment!

caite said...

The problem comes down to whether you live in a place that offer that option, of having a number of great brick and mortar and indie stores. In Boston, or near any big city, sure...but for many of us that option does not exist. The Middle of Nowhere USA just does not have enough book lovers to be able, even under the best of circumstances, to support those stores.

Sandra said...

Well put. And good for you forhaving the courage to get rid of your Amazon account and support local shops. Boston is a great town for bibliophiles and education, and people like you are keeping it that way.

Florinda said...

I was having a discussion on a similar topic just yesterday. Although I do buy most of my music online these days (keeping iTunes in business), I tend to buy books online only if I know exactly what I want and want to make sure I'll have it in hand by a certain day - or if I'm buying them for someone else.

I still need to browse in "real" bookstores where I can handle the books before I decide about buying them. And I seem to make more "finds" in bookstores when I'm idly browsing, and not searching for anything in particular.

Marie said...

Florinda- I'll drop by your blog to see that but in the mean time- having them when you want them is no problem with bookstore shopping as opposed to ordering. AND bookstores like it when you browse & buy from them, rather than browsing from them then buying from Amazon. :-)

Amy said...

I agree so much! I make a point to go to the bookstore and browse. And I don't discover much new music these days. :(

Zibilee said...

Great topic! Unfortunately I live in an area where the most exotic stores you will find are mostly the big box stores. To combat this, I rely heavily on word of mouth, book blogs, book related message boards, and book clubs. So, while I still shop mostly online, I get a really eclectic mix of books to read. I would prefer a real indie store to browse around, but that doesn't seem to be in the cards.

stacybuckeye said...

I rarely buy books online. Keep my paper list right here by the computer for easy reference. I don't mind shopping at big box stores because they do serve a purpose, but support a widerange of local bookstores too.