Death of a Book Salesman

When Holly Golightly’s mood brooded with the mean reds in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” (feeling blue would be all too plebeian), she used to take a taxi to the jewellery chain’s flagship store on Fifth Avenue to calm her nerves. For those of us who are not fortunate to be either living in Manhattan or be enamoured by diamonds, a similar feeling of relaxation and yearning, mixed with a sense of security and wonder, may be achieved by entering a bookshop and browsing through the volumes on display.

Sadly, the recent bankruptcy of the Borders chain of bookstores has all but driven the once venerable book business another step closer to extinction. It will probably survive as a relic of the past—doomed to a mythical corner of Diagon Alley, surviving at the mercy of a miniscule minority of aficionados known as bibliophiles. As a young student in Washington DC, it was a weekly ritual to walk the longer route to the Metro station just to pass the display windows of Olsson’s Books and Records, the Nordic-sounding independent bookstore that is now gone but not forgotten.

It is ironical that Borders (and other big chains) themselves grew by displacing neighbourhood bookstores through a combination of undercutting them on prices, offering a warehouse worth of options, and attracting the curious with incidental merchandise (games and toys, calendars and coffee) that have a much greater mark-up. In the process they successfully completed the commoditisation of books as a volume-driven trade, a phenomenon that threatens to defy geographical boundaries. While trying to recount the delight of serendipitous searches at used book stores lining Calcutta’s College Street, I was interrupted by an expatriate who boasted that stores in his shiny new city sell used books by weight.

While the advent of electronic books is a temporary injunction against the disappearance of reading (economists agree that Borders may have survived if it had been more agile in embracing the digital bandwagon), the book publishing business is doomed if it is unable to adapt to this new age. Although the profit margin on a physical book is about a tenth of its electronic counterpart, the current volume of book sales to libraries and students more than compensates for this inequality. From this position of hubris, conventional publishers see digital books as a disruption to their monopoly (since it lowers the cost for a new entrant), imperilling the world with counterfeited copies. However, much like iTunes capitalised on the sale of single digital songs rather than an entire music album, the book business must also discover their silver bullet to guide them to a solvent future.

And that would be sufficient cause to keep the mean reds at bay, both from our minds and from their ledgers.


No, no, it’s not books at all you’re looking for! Take it where you can find it, in old phonograph records, old motion picture, and in old friends: look for it in nature and look for it in yourself. Books were only one type of receptacle where we stored a lot of things we were afraid we might forget. There is nothing magical in them at all. The magic is only in what books say, how they stitched the patches of the universe together into one garment for us.”

Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451

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