Ink and Paper Are the New Digital Media

By Staci Morrison, Master candidate, Boston University (circa 2012)

This is the online version of the written-for-print feature story on bookshops. 

Electronic reading devices such as the Amazon Kindle, Barnes & Noble Nook and the Apple iPad may be the hottest new way to read a story but they have yet to replace the old-fashioned book. Despite a plethora of digital ways to read content, books continue to be printed the same way they have for centuries. In fact, more books are published today than ever before – over 550,000 were published in 2009 alone. The paper-bound book shows no sign of going quietly into oblivion.

The enduring value of books depends upon the often hidden and undervalued world of independent bookshops. John Carroll, media analyst and professor of contemporary mass communication at Boston University, explains, “[in a bookshop] you have all these accidental encounters with things you had no idea you were interested in and wind up walking out of the used book store with something you never would have looked for on Amazon.” With limited shelf space and nearly limitless books, every title that garners a spot in the independent bookstore must offer an experience that can translate into a mutual, economic value for the bookstore and customer.

Boston is unique in its variety and support of independently-owned bookstores. Consider downtown: within a five-mile radius, there are ten different indie bookstores.  Massachusetts has a tradition of printing, emphasizing a preservation of historic facts and information. Many of the facts and events fundamental to American independence reside in printed forms, adding artifactual value to books.

Books also have the advantage of legacy over their ever-evolving digital counterparts.

“Books are being revived as an object of beauty,” says Ellen Arnstein, employee at Brattle Book Shop, Boston’s best-known used book store and the oldest antiquarian book shop in the United States. “There is an incredible multifaceted value to books.  If not for the intellectual element, there’s demand for the rare, unreproducable artistic elements.” For example, the 1911 edition of Encyclopedia Britannica boasts inaccuracies and attitudes on society that are no longer relevant, yet it is the most valuable edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica. The more out-of-date, or less relevant, the greater a book can appreciate in artistic value as it ages.

Books will not go the way of the compact disc and vinyl record before it.  Unlike CDs, “today, people are buying more books than ever, but from different means,” explains Zach Marconi, manager of Brattle Book Shop. A 2010 study backs up Marconi’s theory. From 2006-2008, the number of self-published books rose by 600,000 titles, while the number of traditionally published books remained constant for the past five years.

Call it natural selection, a coping mechanism or denial, books and their bookshop refuge are showing signs of adapting to our technologic age. Today, anyone can “self-publish” books through online services such as Amazon. Instead of becoming less relevant, books may become more popular as a medium for self-expression. As with all successful media platforms, books still appeal to our desire to create and consume information – they just do it the new, old-fashioned way.

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