Friday, November 7, 2008

Paperback Dreams

Paperback Dreams is the story of two landmark independent bookstores and their struggle to survive. The film follows Andy Ross, owner of Cody’s Books, and Clark Kepler, owner of Kepler’s Books, over the course of two tumultuous years in the book business.

Paperback Dreams Trailer from abeckstead on Vimeo.

We saw this documentary Wednesday night at Vroman's on Colorado. The showing also included a panel of two other independent bookstore administrators: Book Soup and Skylight.

I'm not going to write too much, but I would like to highlight some of the most interesting themes that came up in the film and during the panel.

Books have suffered in a most interesting way as a result of our modern culture's lust for speed and information. Patrick, the web-presence of Vroman's, answered an audience question regarding the Kindle and what such technology possibly means for physical books and their retailers. What he said, I thought was slightly brilliant. He pointed out that the format for music has undergone probably 15 manifestations since its recording (the iPod being the most successful & the disks being a bad idea from the get-go), but books, he said, have yet to really evolve and probably never will. "I think books are a more perfect and durable technology." While the Kindle might be popular for the world traveller who doesn't want to bring a library for just the plane rides, there is a much more efficient way to access or transmit classical and popular knowledge that already exists. Even audio books comprise hardly a fragment of the market for any given topseller. As Matt put it, "basciallly, all the Kindle is, is cool. That's all it has going for it."

Not only was the night educational, I found a rather powerful metaphor for what my professor and the French call "savage capitalism." I'm sure this was not the intention, of course... but what the film and the panelists had to beg on behalf of the dying industry they represented was for loyalty and patience and a shift in values from their customers. As consumers, we want satisfaction, not opinions; we value more bang-for-our-buck which means abandoning the remotely inconvenient, anything that might consume our precious time (i.e. person to person interaction and physical browsing). But the argument suggest that we might be investing poorly. There is a creativity absent in that is only accessible in a tangible world, it only happens in conversation. One of the audience members pointed out the "curatorial value" independent bookstores offer with their staff picks, intimate familiarity with their selection, and unique customer services.

My favorite point of the night (next to the former owner of Cody's comparing Jeff Bezos to Stalin and Hitler) was when Emily, from Skylight, pointed out one of the most important elements to the success and existence of independent bookstores. She was telling us that we could order the books we wanted from her store on the Internet, but that she also understood the search engines on the website were awful (all panelists agreed to this) and that we can't satisfy the demands of our modern persons' curiosity as it strikes at 3AM, "Search on Amazon, I don't really care, I search on Amazon... search when it's convenient. You can [still] come to the store and pick it up and still participate in this community institution."

Have you ever thought of a bookstore as a "community institution"? Paperback Dreams talks about the "Paperback Revolution" in the 50s (the era of Cody's & Kepler's) when books, and therefore knowledge, became incredibly accessible to the common person for pennies and dollars - bookstores became havens for for free-thinkers and informal informational exchange and discussion, particularly in the 60s. In the cases of Cody's (on Telegraph in Berkley), they even became places of respite for the marginalized and havens for the injured (literally... injured in police marches and such). Emily's expanded on the practical role of this "community institution" as it can be appreciated by consumers on a historical level, "Skylight is 12 years old," she said, "but the a book store (formerly Chatterton's) has been in this place now for some 40 years." Being a "neighborhood fixture" required tenacity from the customers who still visit the store despite the name change and passing of those "some 40 years".

A pertinent point that all the panelists adamantly made was the need for independent booksellers to resist the temptation of serving the whole world (as Powell's showed possible). They even said that their stores are not about trying to expand in order to serve the greater LA area. Being greedy and trying to acquire new markets can lead to forgetting who their community is, and community, the film points out, is how paperback selling began. Rather, they are "the neighborhood's bookstore," a "community institution" that in their steadfastness remembers whose they are.

1 comment:

Patrick said...

Great post (and great blog in general). I'm really happy the event drew some interested folks. Thanks again for coming out.

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