When Minnesota resident Heather Galway needs to liven up a Tuesday, she heads for the closest Barnes and Noble. It means coffee and adult conversation for the stay-at-home mom, but she thinks it’s as good for her kids as any playground.
A voluntary Luddite, Galway, 36, eschews social media, lets her husband handle the email and carries a battered flip phone she refers to as a “dumb” phone.
She also can’t stand e-books. So while her older son is at daycare, she packs up her 16-month-old daughter in the stroller and takes her to the closest Barnes and Noble for what she calls “real books.”
“I know in a few years I’ll be fighting the Kindle fight — they’ll want them,” Galway said. “But for now, while they’re little, I want them to be able to walk into a place that’s just for books, stocked with books that are for them.”
Galway’s afternoon excursions with her stroller might be fleeting.
It’s no secret that the bookselling industry has been struggling recently against internet giant Amazon. With the collapse of Borders in 2011, Barnes and Noble became the last man standing against Amazon’s bookselling division — a role it is struggling to keep up.
Barnes and Noble corporate declined to comment for this story, but dwindling revenue and an increasing reliance on toys, games and home goods on its shelves have many wondering how long Barnes and Noble can hold out. Its potential demise also begs the question of what would be lost if bookstores and physical books went the way of the record store, dwindling to a few stalwarts selling what most now consider specialty items?
“It’s ineffable,” said Connecticut-based publishing consultant David Wilk. “If you’re browsing in a bookstore, you have this beautiful experience where you connect the transformative experience of reading with the powerful, physical object that allows you to do that.”
In an age when any title can be downloaded in seconds, defining why bookstores and books still matter is difficult, but experts and bibliophiles say that if bookstores became less common, so will a direct, palpable connection to human history.
“Book are parts of our culture,” Penn State Brandywine codicologist and historian Kathleen Kennedy said. “If you’ve ever read a novel, you’re taking part in that rich, human tradition.”
As author Keith Houston argues in his latest book, “The Book: A Cover-to-Cover Exploration of the Most Powerful Object of Our Time,” a book isn’t just what it contains — its physical form is also a key to understanding mankind.
“The book is a thread that’s woven into human history. It finds its way to Egyptian wars, Renaissance Venice, even piracy,” Houston said. “There’s something to be said for the very direct connection we have with physical books.”
One of the biggest losses book lovers would suffer if physical books and bookstores disappeared is a book’s tangible character — the nameless “book” smell, the feel of paper, the sound of a page turning.
What they may not realize is that those properties — what Houston calls the “bookness” of books — are a direct reflection of the humans who made them, like a living historical artifact.
“The book has been literally shaped by the last 2,000 years of human history. The size and shape is tailored really well to us,” Houston said. “When you think about all of this, it’s astounding — just the sheer number of coincidences that aren’t coincidences.” As Houston found in his book, historians cannot pinpoint the exact time when the first book was made, but it extends at least back to Ancient Egypt.
Ironically, Houston found that the Egyptians fretted over the advent of written language much the way modern bibliophiles worry about the digital age swallowing hard media like books or vinyl.
Thamus, the pharaoh who received hieroglyphics from the god Thoth in Egyptian myth, complained that writing would “condemn humanity to absentmindedness,” Houston wrote.
Thamus’ concerns did little to discourage the use of the language and its more portable companion, papyrus. For millennia since, every iteration of the book, from scrolls to modern acid-free paper reflects how the book has been perfected for human use.
For instance, the size of a paper page versus the size of ancient scrolls or large parchment pages is intentional — early paper was made in molds, which had to be placed by papermakers and couldn’t be wider than an average man could spread his arms, Houston said. Even modern typefaces and fonts are derived from the handwriting found in medieval manuscripts, said Marguerite Ragnow, curator of the University of Minnesota's James Ford Bell Library.
It’s easy to connect the physical attributes of books to their moment in human history with Ragnow for a guide.
Books like the two medieval encyclopedias she carefully paged through, she explained, were made to last. The pages are parchment — treated animal skin cut so gossamer thin the accompanying drawings can be seen through the page. It resembles paper so closely that the only hint it was once animal hide is a faint smell of leather as the page turns.
The contents were treated like treasure, the information of the day dressed in gold leaf and elaborately illustrated. Thirteenth-century encyclopedia passages about animals find dainty mermaids and unicorns sharing the margins with wolves and birds. There’s an entire section on angels, Ragnow added as she smiled and adjusted her glasses.
“It’s not the same,” she said, “to look at a digital copy.”
The long history and presence of books in human civilization may have deeper roots in the human brain than most people realize.
A 2013 study from Emory University found that reading books (in this case, novels) stimulated brain activity and physically improved brain connectivity, meaning that while a good story might change a person’s view of the world, it may also physically change how their brain is wired and literally shaping the reader’s personality.
Other research has found the opposite to be true for reading and retaining information on TV and computer screens, and there’s a neurological reason for that, Kennedy said. While human brains may not be “hardwired” to prefer learning from books vs. screens, the neural pathways books forge are stronger.
“The more senses an activity engages, the more the mind remembers and learns and likes something,” Kennedy said. “Physical books engage all the senses — you smell the ink, you feel and hear the paper crinkling — and we’ve been doing that and learning like that whether with a scroll or a codex for thousands of years.”
The bookstore ‘experience’
If books are reflections of human history and development, the existence of bookstores arguably shows how a society prioritizes knowledge, personal growth and access to those virtues — quite a thing to lose given the shaky state of the publishing industry.
“In some ways, a bookstore is like a church or a temple almost,” Houston said. “It’s saying, ‘We think this form is important, let’s build a big, beautiful building for it.’”
Browsing in a bookstore, booksellers argue, is also more akin to ritual than mere shopping because it’s a quest for an experience or wisdom rather than physical necessity.
“Shopping for a book is very different from shopping for something like shoes. There’s serendipitous magic in browsing shelves that’s unique,” American Booksellers Association CEO Oren Tiecher said. “Without bookstores, you’d lose that.”
Customers leave bookstores with much more than books; they leave with a distinct, personal experience, says author Rob Hart, who works in Lower Manhattan’s oldest and last specialty bookstore, The Mysterious Bookshop.
“Bookstores are about more than retail. An algorithm can recommend something you might like, but it’s different from someone telling you, ‘I loved this book,’” Hart said. “Being able to connect with people over that — it would be horrifying to lose.”
It’s that unique connection that kept bookseller David Unowsky eager to get to work every morning for 34 years as the owner of Hungry Mind Bookstore in St. Paul, Minnesota. The store closed in 2004, but Unowsky is still a champion of bookstore culture as the events manager for St. Paul’s Subtext Books.
“There are things in books and in bookstores you can’t find anywhere else,” Unowsky said. “The thrill of a customer’s face when they meet an author at an event. Going face-to-face when you put that perfect book in their hand — wow. You can’t get that on the internet.”
Booksellers argue that it’s the unique “bookstore experience” that’s led to industry growth among independent bookstores. The American Booksellers Association reports that the number of independent bookstores grew dramatically from 1,651 in 2009 to 2,311 as of May 2016 — even as large chains like Borders and Barnes and Noble struggled.
The “bookstore experience” is also something digital reading has struggled to recreate. E-book site CafeScribe launched a line of stickers for computers and tablets designed to attach that signature “old book smell” to electronic textbooks. Dozens of manufacturers make book and bookstore-scented candles, perfumes and air fresheners, in an attempt to “bottle” the experience of being in a bookstore.
“It’s special. It’s not like GoodReads, where you’re sharing an interest but you have to invest a lot of time to it,” Houston said. “Bookstores facilitate just the physical proximity to people of similar interests, and if that’s not a deep-seated human need, I don’t know what is.”
It may be that digital reading and e-books may never completely replace physical books for Americans. Based on her experience safeguarding ancient stacks, she suspects physical books aren’t going anywhere.
“Part of our job is to share these materials, so we digitized them. People come anyway,” Ragnow said, a knowing smile crossing her face. “At the end of the day, people want the real thing.”