Little Bookshop of Horrors

How the Internet is changing (perhaps clear-cutting) Seattle's bookscape.

I'D BE A HYPOCRITE to bash the Internet book business. Mossback's stump is lined with books acquired from all sources: from Amazon and Powell's online to antiquarian dealers, remainder tables, chain stores, and catalogs. Even a few boldly borrowed and not (yet!) returned.

Like a lot of people, my bookish habits have evolved over the years. I do less bargain-bin diving, and my collecting passions, always fickle, have cooled. When I was younger, I loved the thrill of the hunt, spotting and snatching up a Joseph Conrad first edition for a buck, say. These days there's little of that. I usually shop when I'm looking for something specific. The Internet is where I go first if I want it fast.

Nevertheless, I was saddened to hear that the King County Library system has eliminated its traditional semiannual book sales. No longer will the public be able to browse tables filled with thousands of the library's unwanted volumes and grab them by the boxful for a song. The sales were a pain to put on and too expensive, the library says. So they're selling their discarded books on Amazon. On the Web site, you can find some 30,000 KCL bookssome 500 Web pages worth. No description. No way to sample the wares. No way to determine condition. No way to see the pictures. No way to share the pleasure of a find with the person next to you. It's cold, impersonal, and practical if you already know what you're looking for. The books, warehoused in Boulder, Colo., are a bit more expensive, too.

WHAT WAS ONCE a literary garage sale that promoted reading and encouraged curiosity is now a disembodied database. It's a loss for those who like to use the five senses when checking out the merchandise.

The library's move is another way the Internet is changing Seattle's book scene. "Retail shops are getting killed by the Internet," says former ad exec Bob Brown, a local dealer who has long specialized in collectible science fiction and fantasy books. And this in a town that supposedly buys and borrows more books per capita than any other American city. Brown's shop is part of a small cluster of independent bookstores on Stone Way North. "We're really screwed over. There are so many fewer shops than there used to be; maybe half the shops as there were five years ago," he claims. The good old, independent, cat-in-the-window used bookstore is the new spotted owl, squeezed by big chains like Half Price Books and by increased online competition. Many of Seattle's big, general used shops, like Shorey's and Beatty's, are, like the library book scramble, a memory.

Brown is a survivor, but it hasn't been easy. Someone should do a cartoon of what's happening, he says, based on the scene in the movie Braveheart where, after the battle of Sterling, a few ragged Highlanders stand bloody and unbowed. Brown would be one of those warriors dazed amid the carnage of dead bookshops. This is hardly the kind of image that used to inflame the imaginations of rainy day bookworms.

ONE BOOKSHOP THAT is now kaput is Taylor Bowie's. His M. Taylor Bowie, Bookseller was most memorably located next door to the Elliott Bay Book Co. in Pioneer Square. Bowie is an old friend and has one of the sharpest minds (and wits) in Seattle, and it's not limited to rare books and records. I miss Bowie's shop, but he doesn't. In fact, he embraced the Internet revolution by selling his stock to Alibris, the online bookseller, and joining their staff as a book buyer. During three years of the dot-com boom, Bowie bought nearly a million books for the company. He doesn't see the Internet as a threat but as a valuable service. On the Internet, "junk sells in astounding quantitiesto people who'd never go to a bookstore or library sale," he says. "It's a new, expanded market." He thinks the King County Library move makes sense. The Internet, he argues, has helped make books affordable because more stock is available and it's easier to comparison shop for the best price. Also, books that most dealers would bypasslike former library copies that are anathema to most collectorsare perfectly serviceable for readers looking for specific content.

(To give you an idea about ex-library copies, I picked up a first edition of Frank Herbert's Dune at the Lakeside School rummage sale years ago. In decent condition, it would sell for anywhere from $5,000 to $10,000 today. My copy, rebound for the school library in thick battleship gray cloth, was purchased for 50 cents. Even if it were worth $500 now, you can see the difference a library stamp makes.)

I THINK BOTH Brown and Bowie make good points. As a book buyer, I want it all. I'd find it intolerable if the Internet bookstream disappeared. On the other hand, Seattle is poorer with fewer off-leash areas for bibliophiles. Fortunately, there's an upcoming chance for them to browse, and perhaps commiserate: the Seattle Antiquarian Book Fair at Seattle Center is Oct. 11-12. Used- and rare-book dealers from all overbut especially the Northwestwill be there hawking wares that this year include everything from a rare, near complete run of the legendary Helix, Seattle's 1960s underground newspaper, to a first-edition account of the Lewis and Clark expedition. It's the local rare book equivalent of a farmers market, a place to find great stuff sold by people who know what they're selling, and who care about it as much as you do.

kberger@seattleweekly.com

 
comments powered by Disqus