Here is my vision, my personal wish list, in order of priority.
In Heaven there will be:
1) No leaf blowers or other noisy garden tools
2) Universal peace and love
3) An independent brick and mortar bookstore on every block, wedged between a coffee place and a really yummy restaurant.
The bookstores would all be different from one another. Some would specialize in a genre, such as speculative fiction, or lit fic, or mysteries, or whatever. There would even be a store specializing in books I would absolutely hate and think are pure trash.
Each store would be owned and operated by an individual, or couple, or very small group of partners, and would represent the taste and interests of the owner/operators, whose decisions would reign supreme. They could do special orders for anyone who asked, but would not be guided by popular taste in which books they would put on their shelves. No one could ban a book, or be able to remove a book from a store window. The bookseller’s decision is absolute. Blindfolds and white canes would be provided for the easily offended.
I want to be surprised by what I see. It’s great to know what I want and be able to get it, but I also enjoy not knowing what I want, the pure entertainment provided by the idiosyncratic collection of books someone else finds interesting. It is Bookstore as Art. I don’t like everything I see, but I love that it exists. I would visit the genre stores I liked, but would also tag along with my historical romance friends to the stores they liked. I love ideas, variety, comparing and contrasting, and finding the occasional treasure I never would have known existed without the unique perspective of one individual bookseller, not to mention my fellow book buyers.
That is Heaven.
Back here on Earth, we must make do with less. People do try. At B&N, we are familiar with the shelf dedicated to staff picks. It’s not nearly enough; it seems like a minor indulgence, and the individual picks do not form a whole. B&N varies by store, with some locations pretty fun to look at, and others oddly devoid or what I call “real books.” A celebrity weight-loss book by an actress is not a real book to me. Neither is a memoir by the adolescent daughter of a former governor. I wish they wouldn’t use their space so poorly. Give me real books, please. (Yes, I did specify that there would be a bookstore in Heaven specializing in books I hate, didn’t I?)
Bad bookstores need no longer prevent us from having what we want. Just about anything every published is available online, but how does one browse anything so vast? The search functions don’t do it for me.
These days, I do buy most of my books online, some ebooks, some traditional. I buy a lot of books from Mark and Cindy Ziesing, at http://www.Ziesings.com, and they are able to give me that “browsing” experience, minus the good restaurant and coffee shop next door, alas. The Ziesings are wildly idiosyncratic in their tastes, offering a fair amount of speculative fiction, but also mainstream, slipstream, erotica, downright silly, and unclassifiable. And if they bring a book to my attention, I feel I must buy it from them, and not from Amazon, even if it costs me a couple extra bucks. Call it a finder’s fee. Without booksellers like these, I would have only my own taste to rely upon.
(Examples of books brought to my attention by the Ziesings: Amberville, by Tim Davys, Swamplandia, by Karen Russell, and The Manual of Dectection, by Jedediah Berry. I recommend them all.)
From my non-professional viewpoint, I do believe independents can survive and even flourish online, as long as people know they are there. I suspect the non-ebook will become something of an artifact, that future readers will not have as many books on their shelves, but that those they have will be prettier, perhaps signed, or special editions of some sort. I don’t see quickly-yellowing mass-market paperbacks in our future. There is simply no need for them. Trade paperbacks and hardbacks will survive, and I will enjoy them for the rest of my life.
I’m not willing to speculate what happens after that. But if I awaken from death surrounded by celebrity bios, political blowhard tracts, and weight-loss books, and if that’s the only bookstore there is…well, I’ll know I didn’t make it to Heaven.