The Third Place: Bringing Personal Life and Communal Life Together Through Books

December 11, 2017

Since the beginning of the 21st century, most of the reporting on the impact of e-books and the online marketplace has painted independent bookstores in a fading light. With headlines stating that the long reign of bookstores was over and predicting the collapse of the industry, most people thought that we were amongst a huge cultural shift towards technology.

In the mid-2000’s, e-books were flying off the digital shelves and seemed to overtake all genres at the same time. What, at the time, appeared to be a cultural upset, the e-book industry has plateaued off in the recent years as people decide how e-books fit into their lives. Whether that has been the adoption of e-books or an unshakable attraction towards print, the decision is generally a communal one.

For some communities like Marin Academy, that has meant a shift in the books available in the library. Though most fiction and light reads continue to remain in print, a majority of the reference books have moved online. Alexandria Brown, a Marin Academy librarian, takes special note of this when ordering books for the library. While the school has an e-book loaning system, OverDrive, it has remained essentially unused since its introduction to the community.

“The MA community tends to prefer print books to the digital at least in relation to the library books. The community has to decide,” said Brown.

And in most places, the community has spoken, and the gradual decrease in e-book sales has been their answer. Bill Petrocelli, co-owner of Book Passage and a writer, has experienced the decline firsthand.

“E-books, the last time I looked, was probably about 20 percent of the book business overall in terms of buying and sales, but that is kind of a misleading figure because e-books are very much used in certain genres of books but have little impact on others. It’s a matter of taste,” said Petrocelli. 

The walls of DIESEL, A Bookstore are filled from top to bottom with books curated to fit the interests of the community.

For many, the deciding factor between e-books and print books is functionality. E-books have been championed as the epitome of functionality with a system that makes reading less clunky and widely available. One of the most impactful functionalities of e-books is their portability, resulting in most people gravitating towards them when traveling or commuting since they are lightweight, small, and can hold an infinite quantity of books. They are also particularly adaptable to the reader’s needs with brightness and font size adjustabilities.    

With these benefits and more, it would seem that e-books are logically the better choice, however, choosing a book isn’t about logic. Books are not solely defined by the story that they contain and the experience of reading a physical book far outweighs the functionality of an e-book. The unique feeling of slipping your finger under the lightweight paper of a page and turning it is as irreplaceable as the scent of ink on the page and glue in the binding. These seemingly minute characteristics of a print book contribute to the overall relaxing nature of reading cannot be reproduced with our current technology.

“I think books are here to stay—I really do—because I think there is a certain visceral feel that people have when they have a book,” said Petrocelli.

Not only do e-books physically lack in inciting the same mood as print books, but the online interface through which you buy them hinders exploration as well. Large online retailers mainly focus on maximizing their profits through low prices and algorithms that present consumers with books similar to those they have read in the past. This stagnates readers and often leads to their dissatisfaction with the experience as a whole. John Evans, a co-owner of DIESEL, A Bookstore, explained that unlike bookstores or libraries, online marketplaces prevent readers from augmenting and expanding their literary palates.      

“The internet provides people with their past choices and bookstores present people with their future. You can’t discover things very well online. You’re going with the choices you’ve already made; it’s a much more limited situation,” said Evans.

The Larkspur Landing DIESEL, A Bookstore location serves as a quaint gathering place in the middle of the shopping center.

However, in a bookstore, the metaphorical doors are thrown open and you can freely explore new books, ideas, and concepts. Part of bookstores’ everlasting charm is the community that gathers around them. Bookstores curate their selections based on the communities they serve, which gives a unique view into the culture and values of the area. In the Bay Area, independent bookstores hold a variety of books from classics to comics and everything in between but most importantly they hold the space for dialogue. Bookstores are a natural community gathering place because of the diverse exchanges that happen between not only people and books but also each other. These spoken and unspoken conversations color the interactions in a bookstore, giving them an irresistible attraction that people gravitate towards.    

  “The bookstores have certain characteristics about them that differentiate them from other stores. One is that they become, in recent years, much more of a community center. It’s a place you go if you want to get information about what is going on and to meet other people that are interested in the same topic,” said Petrocelli.

In this manner, bookstores are a convergence of the personal life and the communal life. They, along with libraries, bridge the gap and create a space where individuals can express their thoughts and beliefs to their community while simultaneously being supported. Brown calls this the third place, the merging of the two hemispheres in a person’s life, the home, and the community, into a shared commonplace. The third place is an intrinsic aspect of books that is carried over into the places that hold them. Whether they are in a bookstore, library, or personal collection, books serve as conversation starters and sources of cultural production.

These qualities of books make the congregation of people and ideas that surround them impossible to recreate electronically. Though the text of an e-book and a physical book may be the same, the delivery of the book and the way in which people interact with them are different. While a print book can be put on shelves or on a table, e-books can only be accessed through a device. The image of an electronic reader sitting on a table invokes a drastically different response than a print book for an important reason. The visceral reaction that people get when they hold and touch a book, flipping through the pages and feeling the weight of the book in their hands informs them of other qualities of the book and the person who owns it. Because books show their owner’s interests and hobbies, the lack of them in a home makes a person’s house feel more like a house than a home.        

Petrocelli commented on this occurrence in regards to the difference between an e-book and print book: “If you are reading a serious book that you might want to go back to or refer to or search or flip back a few pages or you want to keep it on your shelf, there’s just no substitute for a book in paper or in most cases a hardcover.”

For these reasons, it doesn’t seem like the demand for print books is going away anytime in the foreseeable future. And since books aren’t going away, the places that sell and hold them certainly aren’t leaving either. In fact, smaller, independent bookstores are popping up all over the country at an increasing rate.   

Customers of the Corte Madera Book Passage browsed the shelves after attending an author event in the early afternoon.

“It went from 39,000 bookstores in 1989 to 13,000 in 2008, according to the American Booksellers Association, and now there’s 23,000. Since 2008 there’s been an 80% increase in the number of bookstores in a ten year period. So that’s an 8% growth you could say of—roughly speaking—independent bookstores per year,” said Evans.

The resurgence of independent bookstores is largely due to communities speaking up and embracing them in their towns. The desire for smaller, community-based bookstores has been in part, a cultural response to the rise of giant retail chains online and in stores. The impersonalized and generic experience of shopping at a big chain bookseller and the detached nature of online shopping has resulted in the polarization of communities. Many people battle between the convenience and functionality of online and the warmth of an independent bookstore when deciding where to shop.

Rather than starting a shift in the way literature is experienced and read, e-books have indicated an entire cultural shift towards valuing functionality and speed over time-weathered principles of community and quality over quantity. This mental battle leaves an unspoken but ever-present question at the back of our minds waiting for an answer that only time can give: Will our old values remain or will they be burnt out in the flames of a new age based on functionality and speed?

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