Bookstores: Museums Filled with Lost Art in a Digital Age

Shoppers browse for books at a bookstore in Beijing, China.

by Echo Xie

The way we live now is a lot different than when I was a teenager, and that was only ten years ago.  According to National Geographic, the 7 billionth baby was born this year, either in India or the Philippines. Wherever this lucky baby is, he/she will definitely grow up in a world beyond our wildest imagination.

I have always had a thing for bookstores. One of my favorite childhood memories is of a small bookstore near my home. I can still remember vividly its big windows, giant bookshelves, ladders that went all the way to the top, and glass floor. Of course, it was shut down a long time ago. Then there was this bookstore & café called O2 Sun that I really loved when I was an undergraduate. It took me almost an hour to get there from school, but I still went a lot. Sadly, as a poor student, it was hard to say no to Amazon when it offered half the price. Eventually, despite of my undying passion to O2 Sun, I bought less and less from it.

So I cannot say I’m totally surprised when I heard the news that O2 Sun was closing last week. It seemed to do well over the years and at its best it grew into a chain with more than 30 stores all over China. Every time I stepped into any of the O2 Sun stores, there were people everywhere with books in their hands. But the truth is, it has been losing money for years, and now its day finally came.

After the news broke out, people began to lament over the loss of the bookstore, as if some part of Beijing had died. I suddenly realized we no longer go to bookstores because we need to buy books. More often, we go to bookstores to make ourselves feel good. Nowadays opening a bookstore is more like opening a museum, no one sees it as a wise business decision, but we all admire the courage.

Media as a tools have gone through serious changes. The discussion on how to preserve our great legacies never stops us from digitizing every bit of our lives. The future of print media is doomed for sure. Earlier this year, almost every major newspaper and magazine in the U.S. dedicated at least an article to Borders, another bookstore chain that had gone out of business. Even more retrospective, there’s an article in Intelligent Life magazine this month about the dying of handwriting, Handwriting: An Elegy. Articles on this topic tend to be long and heartfelt, probably because we all have a lot to say but there’s nothing we can do.

So when we are mourning for paper books, or bookstores, or calligraphy, what are we really mourning for? One can easily argue that our spirit will remain regardless of forms, and our wisdom will only grow stronger by adopting new and more effective ways to communicate. To put it more delicately, the demise of some old media is nothing but a lost art. In fact, compared to the length of our civilization, the printing press is not even an ancient one. Sometimes I wonder maybe when Gutenberg first invented the printing press, people were just as frustrated and furious as we are towards electronic reading, shouting desperately, “What’s wrong with writing and wood-carving?”

This reminds me of a novel called The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald. The woman in that book just wanted to open a bookstore in her small town. She believed with all her heart that a bookstore was something people needed. But people always make their own choices.

I’m sure both Steve Jobs and Jorge Luis Borges are living in two different paradises. And they’re equally happy.

(The photo is by Axel Kirch via Flickr, using a Creative Commons license.)

This entry was posted in Amazon, Books, Bookstores, China, Internet and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Bookstores: Museums Filled with Lost Art in a Digital Age

  1. Echo, I think you are absolutely right. The decline of bookstores is actually a cultural loss. Bookstores are quiet spots that can appeal to social and solitary types alike. Admittedly, I have purchased many a book from Amazon because of the cheaper prices. But here I am lamenting the closure of Borders. I guess it shows that we can’t have our cake and eat it, too. The downside to technological advancement is that sometimes in the process we lose institutions that weren’t actually flawed.

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