Hello iPad … Goodbye Bookstore? Reading the Paradigm Shift

Tony and Sharon Kanauskus are closing 21st Century Bookstore after over 26 years.

An interesting convergence of news recently: one of my favorite bookstores, 21st Century Books in Fairfield, is going to be closing its doors. The Bodhi Tree, a beacon to spiritual/metaphysical readers on the West Coast for almost half a century, also announced that it is also going out of business. And at a San Francisco event charged with months of breathless anticipation, Apple CEO Steve Jobs unveiled the iPad multimedia reader.

It starts with a ripple here, a cloud there. A slight shift in the wind or the color of the water…before you know it, you’re in the middle of a full-on sea change. While no one can say with certainty what the future of the transforming publishing industry will be, limned by these three stories it seems likely that the printed word won’t be part of it.

First, the bright, shiny, techno-futurist side of the coin. The iPad opens an exciting new chapter in media consumption and production. The multi-touch screen of the purpose-built media device can (and I believe will) fulfill the promise that the online environment always offered but that the PC never really delivered. Direct screen manipulation makes possible the intuitive, tactile and instant navigation of a physical newspaper and enables levels of rich media limited only by the imagination of publishers. Sidebars can spring to life as full-blown, multimedia-enhanced features; hyperlinks zoom out of their tedious confinement, giving an online magazine almost infinite stickiness; and videos and audio tracks will make printed stories jump off the page like the living pictures in a tabloid at Hogwarts. (And no, I can’t tell you who is going to pay for content in the end.)

The iPad may usher in a flowering of books, too. Media-rich readers like the iPad (well, there aren’t any, yet) free books from the bonds of their binding and make possible “literally” three-dimensional storylines, mouseover metafictions, and latticeworks of corollary material more hyperbolic than a Borges fever dream.

Come now the dark bits.

I’m a new media maven and gadget geek, but I’m an old-school book-lover, too: the iPad, to my eye, is the final nail in the coffin of the bookstore, and very likely the printed book itself.

It’s hardly news that the young century has been a lean one for booksellers. Not just independents and specialists like 21st Century and The Bodhi Tree, but even big chains like Borders. I don’t claim to know whether people simply don’t read books in these sped-up, distracted times; books sales at Amazon and the buzz over their Kindle would suggest that they do. And Lord knows people have stuff to say; they’re dying to write about it and publish it — somewhere, somehow. But one only need to look at the record industry to guess where we might end up: in the age of the iPod, CDs are obsolescing as quickly as ink blotters or buggy whips. I see the iPad, the iPod’s sibling, doing the same thing to physical books.

It’s simply a business equation: there will always be a hard core of old-school book-lovers, like myself, who love their shelves overflowing with musty, cloth-bound anthologies; smug trade paperbacks; fat, spine-cracked best-sellers purchased at Midwestern airports; tall, heavy, unread art books, written to accompany that show at the Whitney you never quite made it to; the odd graphic novel with its garish, you-gotta-problem-with-that? jacket; a few tattered, foreign-language novels by obscure authors, titles reading in the wrong direction like confused emigrants at the dock; but if enough people get their books electronically, rather than in printed form — and they’re starting to — there will no longer be enough demand for paper books to make it worth printing them.

Oh, there’s talk of bookstores going to a print-on-demand model. Really, though…why bother? At best that sort of thing would be like the specialty market that’s kept vinyl alive. The fact that you can make any number of books appear, zip, with the click of a mouse — or more to the point the touch of your iPad — is going to shutter most remaining bookstores within five years.

It sickens me to think of my beloved City Lights closing its doors in San Francisco’s North Beach, or Prairie Lights in Iowa City, or Green Apple or Strand or Powell’s, but publishing’s new e-paradigm is going to hit Barnes and Noble hard, too. Maybe not as hard, not right away, but unless the big chains can cash in on the New Book, their story will surely come to a close.

I’m open to being wrong. I would love to be wrong. If you think my logic’s flawed, and see printed books sharing the marketplace as comfortably as TV and radio, sketch that scenario out for me. Bring some hard facts and an infallible argument and talk me down.

But the writing, one regrets to say, is on the wall…and the facts, with each spiffy new e-reader, and with each 21st Century, Bodhi Tree, Black Oak, Cody’s or [fill in the name of your late, lamented, local bookseller] that closes, are on my side.