Monday, December 29, 2008

Books and Personal Growth

During the last 30 years or more bookstores have served an important place in our culture. Independent bookstores were traditionally places run by people who knew and loved books. For many of us interested in personal growth, independent stores were a place where you could go and find interesting titles. Store owners frequently could suggest things you might like, based on conversations with you. These same stores were the same ones that would invite authors in to speak and sign books. You could always depend on good independent stores to stock not just bestsellers and recent offerings, but usually some old classics and offbeat titles that maybe were never big sellers in the way popular romances or mysteries were, but would always be in vogue with seekers of all types. Independent stores were among the first to offer a cafe where readers could sit and talk.

Then came the huge wave of expansions of the two largest chains. First they wiped out the profit margins of the independents by offering best sellers for 30% or 40% off. They also expanded to carry things that formerly only the independents carried, like tarot decks. Mostly, they carried whatever was popular at the moment rather than a deep inventory, and they rotated it every three months. So that meant if you wanted a title that was not in stock, they would order it for you.

But then came the web, both Amazon and other sites where you could order out of print and hard to find books with a click of the mouse. Not only that, but frequently, they would have even lower prices than the chain stores. Now that the chain stores had build one in every mall and shopping center, many independent shops folded, now the chains themselves are struggling to keep up with the online stores.

I think that independently owned stores are a good thing. It is good to have a place where you can hear authors speak, relax with a cup of coffee and conversation on a night out, as an alternative to a bar. Independently owned metaphysical stores also could be depended on for their bulletin boards or referrals, if you were looking for an alternative health care practitioner, astrologer or psychic. They served as community gathering places.

It will be interesting to see how the next stage of evolution unfolds. Publishing and books are undergoing a radical change, and since books have always played an important role for seekers, the next shift will no doubt involve the web, but there will always be a place for hard copy.

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