Monday, February 21, 2011

Music in the Bookstore

The first bookstore I ever worked in was very old-school in a lot of ways. Although the owner wore baggy old jeans and a torn tee shirt, had hair down to his waistline and was bushily bearded, he would stand for nothing other than classical music as the soundtrack of his rare book shop. Of course, "rare" is stretching it a bit. Like most used & rare bookstores, he had his share of old paperbacks, outdated diet books, and other 20th century detritus (in fact, he taught me as much what NOT to stock as otherwise). Oh, but  he did strive towards his own vision of what an antiquarian bookstore should be.

This vision included a certain odd snobbery in the realm of music. My boss would tolerate nothing other than Mozart, Bach, Purcell, and other established masters of polite strains and stately processionals. Rowdy sorts like Mahler and Stravinsky were not welcome, although occasionally Beethoven was given a chance during particularly slow periods. I'm not sure whether my boss actually preferred this music personally, or just thought it was more conducive to browsing by the book-buying public (which, in this case, actually consisted more of punkish students than the highbrow, monocle-wearing types my boss longed for).

My second boss mostly adhered to the same policy of classical music only. He relented a bit, though, on the weekends, when he was known to allow Broadway show tunes and even folk music. Still, we did have to maintain a certain decorum in our choices. Joan Baez, yes; Phil Ochs, never.

I've always told people that one of the main reasons I wanted my own bookshop after many years of working for others is the ability to choose my own music. Of course, officially the music is just for my ears anyway because of  right-of-use issues. But I can't help it if the music wafts from my office into the adjoining book rooms, can I?  Anyway, in my own shop I cut loose with a vengeance, playing everything from rhythm 'n' blues to the Bonzo Dog Band and Cab Calloway. We have actually had people dancing the Lindy in the aisles and have been told more than once by toe-tapping customers that we play the best music they've ever heard in any kind of bookstore, rare & rarefied or not.

And, strange as it may seem, we even like to play classical music from time to time.


Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Technology and Reading

I've been reading a lot about the e-reader Kindle lately. You've  heard of it. It's available from and lets you read text on a screen. After many years of trying unsuccessful to sell the book-reading public on such a device, Kindle has finally seemed to have won the battle. The corporate salesmen have succeeded in mediating even our reading, of making us believe we need to make even reading a technological event. 

You all should watch a documentary I just saw called "I Need that Record." It's a sad, yet inspiring, elegiac account of the disappearance of independent record stores in the US, with commentary from some very perceptive people in the music industry. What people miss about record stores is not the ability to get a record *immediately* but the ability to browse through a collection of records carefully chosen by someone who cares about music. 

Record stores are eccentric spaces where you might find the most marvelous things fortuitously, things you maybe weren't even looking for in the first place or had never even heard of.  Independent bookstores create those same kinds of spaces, especially bookstores that carry offbeat, unusual, out-of-print stuff that you won't find on Amazon, via Kindle or not.

Don't get me wrong. I do see the point of e-readers if all you do is read trendy bestsellers & trashy novels. But if you want to have a real personal library with some depth and permanence, a library that is a reflection of your individuality and your curiosity, I suggest you find space in your home for some bookshelves. Books last for generations, e-readers are nothing more than plastic junk which will be replaced when the corporate gods decide what the Next Big Thing is that they want you to spend your money on. There's already a Kindle 2.0; I'm sure you'll be needing to keep replacing this mechanism periodically in order to keep up with the Joneses. Right now a Kindle is $139 a pop, plus whatever groovy case & "accessories" you want to add. How many used (i.e., recycled) books could you buy with this money? Quite a few, and probably for less than their Kindle counterparts.

These e-readers, along with their downloaded text (which you don't own, by the way, in the same way you own a book), will wind up in the landfills of the world. I have a vision of people hundreds of years from now trying to figure out this civilization and having nothing to go on but indecipherable pieces of plastic. But the corporate coffers must be filled, and they apparently have found a whole lot of true believers.

It's the same situation as WalMart putting the mom & pop shops out of business. And it's nothing to be proud of or happy about. It's a sad state of affairs that the little shops with real personality & love and passion for books are going away, like lights going out one by one across the American landscape.