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By Bruce Jacobs

Nearly every day of the last week, I have taken some time to search through my house for a book which I am sure I not only have read and but also own. It’s got to be here somewhere. For the longest time Michael Cunningham’s “The Hours” was on the bottom shelf of a bookcase in what we used to call the “computer room” (until we found a different room more comfortable for computer work). Then I moved it because another book needed that shelf place to rest beside several by the same author. The Cunningham is not on the shelves with my more recent purchases. It’s not in the guest room where the not-so-good books go. It’s not in the entryway, the primo location for some of my favorites. I don’t know where it is – I don’t lend my books, so it’s got to be here somewhere.

My dilemma is simple: I have too many books filling too many rooms of a large house that may still not be large enough if I keep buying books. How many books are here? Who knows? The closest I can guess is to estimate our linear feet of shelving, vertical stacks, and book covered table tops and then multiply by some sort of non-scientific average book thickness of one inch. By that measure, I am surrounded by about 4,000 books. They are nearly all hardcover since I long ago boxed up the old paperbacks from my years of college and teacher poverty, and then stacked those boxes in the attic.

The Collection

There used to be some order to this collection – and it is a collection, not a library, because each book was chosen very deliberately, each was read (some with more pleasure than others), and, at first, each was located next to others by the same author or authors with a similar style. Nearly all of them are books of fiction and poetry or books about art, artists, architecture, design, music, writers and writing, Mexico, the Vietnam War, or baseball. If there are any political books or self-help books, they were misguided gifts from those who don’t know me well (like my parents and in-laws).

My ordering scheme, however, soon failed when my favorite writers became prolific and their shelf space didn’t. There was easily room on the shelf for Michael Connelly’s “Black Echo” and “Black Ice,” but now he has written twenty more and shows no sign of stopping. The same thing happened with George V. Higgins, but finally he died so his books will need no more space.

So it has gone with many other authors I “discovered” early who have gone on to a lifetime of writing and publishing. Even literary heavyweights like Richard Ford, Madison Smartt Bell, Ward Just, Russell Banks, and Paul Auster have filled entire shelves pushing the one- or two-book authors off to another bookcase or another room. That’s what happened to the Michael Cunningham; he got displaced somewhere by his more prolific colleagues.

Cyber-Storage

My misplaced book dilemma may soon solve itself. The first week of its release, John Grisham’s new book “The Confession” sold 280,000 copies; but surprisingly, 70,000 of those were digital book downloads. This is the first real blockbuster where the publisher released the book and e-book simultaneously. Clearly many of Grisham’s fans are not interested in owning his book – they just want to read it. They didn’t go to an independent bookstore. They didn’t go to Barnes & Noble, Wal-Mart, or Walgreens. They didn’t wait three days for the Amazon box to arrive in the mail. And when they finished “The Confession” after a few days, they didn’t look for an empty slot on a bookshelf. They probably downloaded something else.

In a recent post on “paidContent.org,” James McQuivey, an analyst at Forester Research, reports that just 7% of “online adults” read e-books, but that these 7% are a major book-buying demographic who today already read 40% of their books as e-books. Many of them still read on laptops, but as dedicated e-readers continue to top consumer lists of most wanted new gadgets, the number of e-books sold will go up even more rapidly than it already has. McQuivey’s article projects that e-book sales in 2010 will end near $1 billion, but by 2015 that number will be $3 billion. Granted, that is only 13% of today’s $23 billion book market, but still – that is a lot of empty bookshelves. Perhaps the only business more at risk than retail bookstores in this new world may be retail book shelf stores.

McQuivey concludes: “That’s why we pause to commemorate the crossing of the billion-dollar threshold, because from here things will move so quickly that by the time the dust settles, the book business may actually be the most digital of all media industries, even if it got the latest start.” Barnes & Noble, fresh from a recent shareholder battle over its future, has begun the process of downsizing shelf space and converting it to display its proprietary Nook e-reader. Store closings are inevitable just as they have come to be at the nearly bankrupt Borders. Real estate is the last thing book retailers need when their product becomes mostly digital.

The independent bookstore, however, may still have some life yet. (Caveat: I am the founder and still minority partner in a 35 year old independent bookstore in Kansas. How else could I acquire so many books without its employee discount?) The independent stores never had the massive title inventory of a Barnes & Noble, so there will be less need to cut space. We always had to “curate” our stock anyway to present the neighborhood with what best fit its interests and to call attention to those less popular books that are hard to discover in the chaos of the internet. We are a place to meet other readers, authors, and friends. We can be what Sylvia Beach’s “Shakespeare and Company” was to the expatriates in Paris in the twenties: a real world “social network” – face time, not Facebook. And yes, independent bookstores will also sell e-books and e-readers.

There are books in my collection which in hindsight I might have been better served by just reading digitally and then deleting them; they were really not good enough to save. Some of those, however, had great covers and design. Some were merely a new author’s first effort, and later he went on to write much better ones; so having his first on my shelves might be a nice way to show a writer’s progress. I’m glad I have them all, and at least for now, I’m not ready to make the shift from a book to put on my shelf to one hanging out there in an easily accessible cloud.

Nonetheless, I am considering a digital system for keeping track of where all my books are. I’ll take another walk through today looking for the Cunningham. It’s got to be here somewhere.


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