19 August 2010

Pondering E-Ink

Scenes from a brief vacation...

A young woman is deep into her Kindle, peering into its gray e-Ink screen while perched on a deck overlooking some of the most spectacular mountains in Canada’s Banff National Park. We’re chatting with a family nearby. “I still prefer ‘real’ books,” the main reader in the family declares. Her husband calls over to the Kindle person to ask if she likes her toy. “I love it, really love it!” she says.

I stand there holding a digital camera. A few years ago I would have had film  in it. Stuck between book and book machine. Which side am I on? Do there have to be sides? Can’t we all get along?

I admit it would be easy to carry Canada guidebooks in electronic form. Pro: Much less weight. Con: No color photos. Same with novels we brought along to read in between staring at beautiful lakes and receding glaciers.

I love electronic things, but I also like to touch the pages I’m reading, bend the spine, use an old receipt for a bookmark, write my name in it, give it away. I like those things about paper books a lot, but I remember how I once turned to my Random House Unabridged Dictionary every day, and now it’s simply a piece of dusty furniture on a lovely rotating wooden stand, cluttering my office.

On the way home to Mendocino we stopped for a visit at Bookshop West Portal in San Francisco. This cozy store is owned by Neal Sofman, an acquaintance from bookselling days.

When I first entered the biz, Neal Sofman was a big deal. With his partners he had a hand in bookstores in Cupertino, Larkspur, and San Francisco.

Four years ago Neal was forced by local conditions and partners wanting out to give up his last bookstore, A Clean Well Lighted Place for Books on Opera Plaza in San Francisco. He came out of the sale with enough money to open another bookstore in the city, this time in a great part of town and minus the messy partnerships.

He told a reporter at the time “I love the new neighborhood -- people keep sticking their heads in the door asking, 'When are you opening?' It's a mixture of old and young people, families, little children, teenagers. There are a number of restaurants right on our block. We have 300 square feet in the back of the store that we'll use for book clubs, workshops, and community activities.”

Neal’s dream is alive. On our brief visit we were gratified by everything we saw – the location, the selection, the intelligent woman working the counter, the many browsers, including a family with children.

Following the maxim “never leave a bookstore without a book” I picked up the last copy of “Helmet for My Pillow, From Parris Island to the Pacific,” a war memoir by Robert Leckie, first published in 1957. Leckie enlisted into the Marines shortly after Pearl Harbor, and fought in the Pacific through a number of horrific and eventually famous battles. He lived to become a prolific writer on US military history.

Leckie’s book was one of the main sources for the recent TV miniseries “The Pacific.”

As we walked down the street to our car we passed an empty storefront, windows whitewashed, a big FOR LEASE sign in the window. It had been a Waldenbooks outlet. Remember Waldenbooks?

Waldenbooks was an early bookstore chain, later absorbed by Borders. Along with Barnes & Noble and Amazon.com these behemoths at one time intended to take over the book business and drive out the independents.

Such things did happen, to a degree. Times got tough for many bookstores, and many disappeared. But now we are on the downslope of that decades-long wave. Many small bookstores survive and prosper. Barnes & Noble is for sale, their sales dinged by the rapid advance of electronic books and e-readers.

Who knows? Maybe the chain stores can’t stand stiff competition. Below-the -radar outfits like Bookshop West Portal thrive in neighborhoods everywhere. That story definitely is not over yet.


Bookshop West Portal, Your Neighborhood Bookstore

From their current bookmark:

“Books are keys to
     wisdom’s treasure;
Books are gates to
      lands of pleasure;
Books are paths
      that upward lead;
Books are friends.
      Come, let us read.

      Emilie Poulsson

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