Sunday, January 10, 2010

My (Unsolicited) Contribution to Tonight's Celebration

Reading recently an old reminiscence of booksellers, publishers and authors long past, I was struck by the pessimism with which the gentlemen "of the trade," more than a century ago, faced the advent of such novel modernities as the then quite new circulating libraries, competitive pricing, and international copyrights. All this innovation threatened to unleash an indiscriminate, and as it turned out quite profitable, mania for books among even the lower classes, and yet, at least until profits justified the new ways, all such novelties were stoutly resisted. And again, in the generation that saw in the last century, the entry into the business of new men with such radical ideas as inexpensive, paperback reprints of the classics, etc., and books sold in train stations and drug stores and the like, was predicted to prove the undoing of traditional publishing and bookselling. We all know just how well that all worked out.

In my own time as a bookseller, I've heard only the most dire prognostications about the future of books, the publishing industry, independent bookstores and the general state of literacy in the United States. First corporate bookselling, then the Internet, now "new media," have each in their turn been predicted to bring about the long anticipated end. No Pollyanna I, it must be confessed that on my own, and among others "in the trade," I have spent many a gloomy and unproductive hour, poring over the signs of doom among the beer-stained trade-papers, interpreting the worst possible future from the disheartening news of independent bookstores closings, established American publishers being absorbed into international conglomerates, the introduction of expensive new middle-class toys meant to replace every book on every shelf in every middle-class home in the English speaking world. Much woe is pitched among the skittles whenever and wherever booksellers gather to drink and remember "the good old days," whatever those might have been, and I have done my fair share of all the pissing and moaning.

As a rule then, booksellers are no better now at predicting, or embracing, the future than we ever were.

Conservatism is, I should say, as much a part of the bookseller's business thinking, as liberalism is likely to be the cast of his or her politics. We tend to embrace change everywhere but in what we do for a living and the means by which we do it. We are progressives in all things save our inventories, our accounting, our salaries and our hours of operation. In describing us as conservatives, I don't mean to suggest just a reactionary distrust of new technology and new business practice. Ours is also conservatism in the best sense; a respect for tradition, a reverence for history and literature, an enthusiasm for the preservation and dissemination of established culture, and an almost evangelical, and indeed, perhaps old fashioned, belief in the transformative power of ownership of the written word.

The pride we still take in our business, and in the history represented best in such surviving institutions as The University Book Store, today celebrating its one hundred and tenth anniversary, here in Seattle, speaks well of our commitment to what is best in what is known, but we should all be reminded by such an occasion as this remarkable anniversary that such an all but unprecedented success owes as much to the willingness of board-members and managers and booksellers down the generations to risk change: to carry unpopular and difficult books, to adapt to the new requirements of the university, to the needs of the shifting populations in this city, and to the amazing changes in American society in the last one hundred and ten years. The University Book Store is still here not only because it remains what we remember best of it, but because it has never been only that.

Soon, a new machine will be up and running in the New & Used Books department. This remarkable -- and remarkably expensive -- new device will allow the bookstore to produce, on site, new books and inexpensive reprints of public domain titles, in roughly the time it takes to order and brew an expresso in the Book Store Cafe. Actual books, mind, attractively bound and priced within the budgets of even the humblest retail worker, or college student. Imagine that!

And with this latest technological innovation, and the introduction of used books into the general inventory just a few years ago, among other changes, good and bad, well considered and ill, The University Book Store has shown a remarkable flexibility for such a grand old thing.

It gives one... hope.

(if I may, apologetically, allow myself a moment's uncharacteristic optimism. You see, I've just been to a birthday party, and perhaps it is the pear cider talking, but for once, I can't bring myself to do more than smile at the more usual gloominess to which we booksellers tend. Tonight at least, the bookstore looks to see another hundred years of local authors, devoted readers, students, faculty and staff, new books and old books, and countless revolutions yet to be spun. But talk to me tomorrow, of course... )

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