June 2021 . . . .

“That’s not your job — part one”

Perhaps by now you’ve surmised I’m not a big fan of social media. I feel sometimes that it is like a traffic accident on the highway, a wildfire, one that we all stop our vehicles to watch, not noticing that it has slipped around behind and now threatens to consume us. And before you activate your righteous ire button, yes, I have a Twitter account, recognize the hypocrisy, and don’t apologize for it. I can guess what you’re thinking: What the hell?

Yeah. You’re right. How can I badmouth the hand that feeds me?

Well, let me climb back up on my high horse and say it doesn’t feed me. I have no illusion that it does me any good whatsoever. I don’t sell books or get readers from it, create connections to useful others, or crowdsource . . . anything. If I ever thought I would gain some functional career boost from a free piece of software, I was misguided.

But my motives were sound. Thirty-five years ago, we were told that no one reads anymore. I had a lovely little bookstore I also frequented, the Cranbury Bookworm, in Cranbury, New Jersey, a short bike ride from my home. It was an old house on the main street, with creaky stairs and shelves and stacks all cantilevered into corners and along walls. You can check it out — it’s still there and I’ll bet still has some hidden treasures going for a song.

And parenthetically, I was writing love poems and using company software and mainframe time to do layout and printing of little chapbooks of my work, to share with friends. They were lovely, awful, amazing things.

No one reads anymore. What would I do if books went away, or at least were difficult to find? What if only the big-name authors got published, and the New York Times Review of Books . . . didn’t? How would we readers find the quirky, the obscure, the not-so-well-received?

Then, about thirty years ago, the publishing world (spoken as if it were a single, unified organism, with a snake head that could be cut off by some dragonslayer) altered itself to align with shiny new mega-bookstores, intended to take what was left of the industry and consolidate it some more, under the auspices of economies of scale profit-theory. Wait a minute — I thought nobody reads? Wrong. I signed up for membership discounts and made my Saturday afternoon journey to the mall and wandered the aisles, looking for paperback copies of bestsellers and seeking the below-cost copies of classics I was supposed to have read in high-school. If, perchance, print-matter was going away, I was going to have a stockpile of TBR that would last at least through the millennium, when all the power kicked off and we returned to a state of stone-aged grace. I also submitted my foolishly derivative sci-fi yarns to the pulp monthlies I picked up at the little newsstand next to the video rental store. I learned a lot about rejection, but who doesn’t? I kept writing. I kept reading. What better way to approach the end of the world?

Twenty years ago? As I recall, the publishing giants — all reswizzled, rebranded, relaxing and basking in renewed sales of print matter discovered that the new little online bookstore named after a South American river wasn’t going away. The megastores were sweating it, too, those that didn’t understand the internet and what was possible. People spending their money online? Preposterous. And my little independent bookstores — the ones I could drive to and stand around in and talk with the booksellers and even the bookbuyers and find out what was cool out there, but wouldn’t get much if any shelf space so if I wanted a copy they could order one for me — well, they . . . went away.

And only slightly tangentially, as publishing, reading and selling books sea-changed, the libraries massaged their game, too. My two locals (it is a wonder to belong to two public libraries, I must say) had a tough time, at first. What to stock on shelves. What to borrow from other libraries, if they can, so that everyone doesn’t have to spend the bucks on the same, rarely read items. There’s a certain kind of magic in a library. I highly recommend knowing a few librarians, and treating them with respect.

How do you even browse online? Algorithms of previous interests are not the same. Telling me what others did in my position is not the same. Browsing is defined as surveying goods in a leisurely and casual way. Allowing me to type in keywords for a search is something, but not the same as shelf space, aisles of titles, authors, subject matter. If you can’t see what’s out there, how do you include them in your “survey?” That’s always been my problem with the big river store. At least in a megastore, I could look around. I can’t do that same thing online. And I am in an albeit fortunate position that I can go to my last small handful of independent bookstores, look for what interests me, and purchase them without too much of a discount. It may or may not make a difference in the end.

But I’m hopeful.