Thursday, May 17, 2007

Just What is a Bookseller Anyway?

The book selling profession in America is one that is changing dramatically. It had once been thought of as a quaint profession for kindly old ladies or a hobby for gentlemen after retirement who would spend their days selecting books and sitting around quietly enjoying a peaceful non-objectionable existence. Nothing can be further from the truth. A bookseller is a warrior on the frontlines of free speech. Warriors who constantly fight for the written word despite the crushing power of large corporations and an indifferent public. Similar to librarians, we defend books and the people who create them with little to no recognition for our contribution.

Books and reading cannot and should never be divorced from politics. So, in my opinion, a bookseller must be constantly aware of the political climate around them. We are living in a dangerous time when ideas themselves are under attack. The future is bleak if we can't get people to start reading again. Independent thought is leaving the landscape. We need good, aware booksellers to highlight and advocate for books.

As I write this, I can feel the bitterness creeping in and I don't want to fall into that trap. I don't want to be bitter. I want to be hopeful and courageous. It is so important that booksellers have a voice out here. This is not just any profession. From the very first day that a printing press cranked out its first edition for mass consumption booksellers have been at the forefront of controversy. Risking their home, freedom, and their very lives so that the public would have access to the written word. We are distributors of new ideas, new information, and new thoughts.

A bookseller is somewhere between a merchant and an intellectual. Increasingly booksellers need to be business and tech savvy. Love for the written word is simply not enough to survive. This is a business. But it also is a cultural phenomenon. I think that the future for us lies on the web. Storefronts are increasingly the domain of real estate moguls. Rents make it increasingly prohibitive for us to make a living there. The industry simply wants independent bookstores to go away. They will be very sorry. The big chains can't be doing very well. They have the same problems that the small guys do only with bigger numbers. (Anyone getting into this profession to become rich is making a big mistake. Do this for the love of it because that is really your only payment.)

So what is the future? Are sites like where things are moving? I don't know. Most people selling books on the web as independents are sell antique books. (This seems so sad — like the book is dead and you're haggling over the remains.) is a new thing. A scary thing. It's only two years old and it's gone through a lot of changes already. I'm hoping that a network of online sellers of books will develop, each doing their own thing, expressing their own personality and servicing bibliophiles of every different kind.

Anyway these are my thoughts on what a bookseller is and is becoming. It is an old and honorable profession. One that I'm proud to be a part of and hope to continue to be well into the future.


Book Calendar said...

I agree completely. Our society is moving away from reading and basic literacy to a society obsessed with video, media, and music.

Many people are no longer literate in terms of reading, but are literate in the use of video, photography, and machinery. It is a strange dichotomy.

We need to bring some balance back to the picture so we can guarantee that people at least have basic literacy before they go off in technical directions.

Daniel said...

Those who read.... lead.

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