Columns

Mitra ’18: Where have all the bookshops gone?

By
Opinions Columnist
Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Yet again, I am forced to mourn the passing of a beloved bookshop. I remember when there was a bookseller of some sort in every mall or square — they were as ubiquitous as the Starbucks on each corner. Now I find myself struggling to find a single new bookshop, even as my old favorites close down all around me.

My clearest childhood memories involve me running through aisles and tripping over books. I could always convince my parents to buy me new titles. I would return from the mall each weekend with bags of colorful novels that I would finish within hours. I loved the smell of newly printed paper, the piles of books placed along the aisles, the wooden shelves extending from wall to wall and reaching to the ceiling. It’s hard to resist the charm of a bookstore, even if it is rather quaint and old-fashioned.

And yet all of my childhood bookshops have vanished, making way for chain restaurants and clothing brands. The few old-world bookshops that still exist in my hometown are invariably silent and deserted. The demand for real books has drastically declined, replaced by the more versatile Kindle or iPad. 

Admittedly, I cannot criticize those who prefer such devices to the cumbersome hard copy. I love e-books as much as the next person. That being said, I still find myself in the market for actual books — no amount of technological development can replicate the experience of reading the real deal. I find it hard to believe that the simple introduction of e-book technology can eliminate the demand for local bookstores. After all, the development of DVDs and Netflix has not made movie theaters obsolete. So perhaps a better question is: Where have all the readers gone?

I may be stating the obvious, but our generation has some of the lowest reading-for-pleasure rates recorded. With the advent of computers, social media and online streaming, people depend less on books to pass the time and more on the latest Apple product. In an eye-opening jolt this summer, I discovered that my 4-year-old cousin knows how to type and YouTube his favorite song — but doesn’t know how to read or even concentrate on a picture book! As modern technology continues to offer us so many tantalizing distractions, we run the risk of forgetting how to read for pleasure.

It might be pessimistic to lament the loss of book lovers in a place like Brown. After all, it is reassuring to know so many people who can still enjoy a good book as much as the latest hit sitcom. As students, we are forced to frequent the libraries and read hundreds of pages on a weekly basis. Our university is full of avid readers who genuinely love books and everything they represent. But that does not change the fact that bookshops — often community hallmarks that have lasted for generations — are disappearing everywhere.

And with them, we are losing the sheer variety we once found in books. Every bookshop I visit seems to have the same collection of books — essentially based on the New York Times Best Sellers list. Of course, many of those novels are worth reading. I prefer, however, the more diverse collections I once used to find in small, independent shops. The independent, family-run bookstores of old took pride in stocking unknown books. Booksellers would promote obscure but wonderful novels and spotlight local authors. Instead of anonymous recommendations, owners and shop attendants would take the time to advise readers on a range of books. These stores took the time to stock niche books alongside the popular hits. They were cozy, warm and personal — I can’t help but miss them.

I know that there are still some incredible bookshops out there. There are even a few in and around College Hill. I’ve heard great things about Books on the Square, an independent shop in Wayland Square that attracts authors from across the country. Last semester, I found a wonderful bookshop called Symposium Books on Westminster Street. It had an enormous collection of new and used books at great prices, with the cozy charm of an old-world bookseller. The Brown Bookstore is also worth mentioning; it might not be a traditional bookstore, but it has a great range of books and knowledgeable employees. These stores have a solid customer base and seem to be thriving — but I still worry that they will go under like the stores in my hometown. 

Every once in a while, I stumble across another one of these shops and tell myself I have nothing to worry about: We haven’t outgrown books just yet. Yet as I see more and more bookshops shut down, I wonder how long that will last. Books have been a significant part of our cultural heritage for centuries. I can only hope they remain so for generations to come.

Mili Mitra ’18 can probably be found browsing the shelves in the Brown Bookstore. She can also be reached at mili_mitra@brown.edu

  • save the books

    so you probably advocate community control of commercial spaces, yeah? commercial rent control? something? anything?

    or you could just waste everyone’s time with bland, boring memories.