Thursday, July 11, 2013

I Scan Barcodes, Tearfully

A visit to my local Barnes & Noble is still a special occasion. There is something comfortingly old-school about circumnavigating the maze of aisles, the espresso aroma of the embedded Starbucks, the awe-inspiring wall of magazines from all over the globe, the crazed half-cocked lean that everyone stands at while perusing the shelves. I appreciate the depth of the selection and the chance that I will happenstance upon something completely unplanned and amazing.

And then I scan the barcode with my iPod, visit thanks to B&N's free wifi and purchase the book at a discount. Right in front of a B&N employee, no less.

It wasn't supposed to be like this. And, make no mistake, I don't want B&N to go away.

When I was a kid growing up in generic subtropic suburbia, there were no big box stores, especially for books. I could brag that the local stripmall bookstore was "independent", but that implies something funky, something dangerous. It appeared that generic subtropic suburban bookstore had a wide selection, but what did I know? It wasn't until I moved to New York City that I discovered small bookstores that catered to specific tastes, like Rizzoli with their gorgeous, out-of-my-price-range, hardcover coffeetable art books, the loft on Broadway that sold nothing but theatre scripts, the Spring Street eclectic bookstore with the expansive worldview – not for people who read romance novels.

By the time I settled back in Tampa Bay, I was all about the independent bookseller, especially in what was then the "bohemian" quarter in Ybor City. Friends had opened the Three Birds Bookstore, complete with poetry readings, subversive literature and a surly barrista. It wasn't until I moved on to Atlanta that I first beheld a two-story Borders and ascended to heaven (or at least up to a graphic novel paradise).

I hear Barnes & Noble isn't doing so well. Whether their online presence is profitable or their digital reader is popular is not my concern; I need their brick-and-mortar to stay in tact. Am I worried there will be less choices without a B&N? Not really. There are already less choices in my digital shopping mall. The small collection of streaming film I list on Netflix is the exact same one streaming for free with my prime account. Music that is maddeningly available "album only" on iTunes is served up the exact same way on The vendors change; the product does not.

I know I can seek out the digital equivalent of "boutique" stores, spread my e-dollars out, go right to the author and bypass the publishing company as much as I can go to Bandcamp to buy music directly from the artist. I have to admit I am afflicted by the same one-stop-shopping laziness that makes folks go to WalMart. Voting with my wallet has never been more important in this world economy, but I don't feel I can really do anything to support local businesses. 

I once again find myself living in a generic subtropic suburbia, but this time around I don't feel I will miss out on the latest German import or out-of-print first edition. As long as I have a good cable connection and an efficient postal system, I am golden. But I am also isolated and not part of the solution (but my espresso skills ain't half bad).