The rise of Amazon originally seemed to forecast the doom of brick and mortar bookshops – especially independent ones. However, instead, they are thriving. Since 2009, there has been a steady increase in the number of independent bookstore locations, with a 53% increase between 2009 to 2019.
Amazon makes it easy to buy things, and books are no exception. It takes a couple of clicks and it’s at your doorstep in a few days – all with free shipping for those of us with Amazon Prime (which is a staggering 82% of households in the U.S.).
It takes almost no effort or time, so why do people still go to bookstores?
The answer is that bookstores are about much more than books. They’re about community, authenticity, and the experience.
City Lights: The Iconic San Francisco Bookstore
Bookstores have always been a part of the fabric of our communities. City Lights, a famous bookstore in San Francisco, opened in 1953 quickly became the center of the Beat movement. It championed counterculture arts, publishing Allen Ginsberg’s Howl, and providing an alternative to mainstream media. It represented progressive politics and thinking and stocked books accordingly.
Nancy Peters, a current co-owner of the City Lights, talked about joining in 1971, “It was clear that it had been very much a center of protest, for people with revolutionary ideas and people who wanted to change society.”
City Lights became a place where like-minded people could gather and converse, and it had a huge effect on its community. The San Francisco Board of Supervisors declared it a historical landmark because of its “seminal role in the literacy and cultural development of San Francisco and the nation, … for championing First Amendment protections, and for publishing and giving [a] voice to writers and artists everywhere.
City Light was and is much more than simply a place to buy books. It represents a community and is a center for culture, something that Amazon could never be.
People Love Their Local Bookstores
The COVID-19 pandemic has made it difficult for bookstores to survive, but it has also shown how important they are to people. Struggling bookstores that reached out for help received an outpour of support from their communities.
Strand, a bookstore in New York City, set up a GoFundMe and got $25,000 worth of donations in a week. One customer said, “this is one place that I cannot imagine New York without.”
It is clear people care about their local bookstores, and City Lights tells us why. With the rise of the internet and social media, people have started to actively seek out the community that City Lights and bookstores like it provide.
Why Bookstores Are Better Than Amazon
Simply stepping into an independent bookstore is like a conversation. While Amazon recommends books based on algorithms and ratings, bookstore staff carefully curate a selection of books that reflects their community’s culture. \
Stepping into City Lights, you will first see books on progressive politics, women’s rights, the LGBT+ community, and police brutality. Most bookstores also have a staff picks or featured books section where small handwritten notes give delightful little recommendations.
It’s not just about the books, bookstores serve as a gathering place and a cultural center. They hold events like open mics and poetry slams and bring in authors for talks or book signings. They support their community movements by putting up Black Lives Matter posters or hanging pride flags in their windows.
Beyond the culture and community bookstores give, they simply provide an experience that Amazon cannot. For me, stepping into a bookstore is like stepping into alternate reality — one where I can forget the stresses of everyday life, one where I can take a moment to breathe and view life in a big picture perspective, one where I have a chance to hear the voices of thousands of authors in one small shop. Bookstores provide an authenticity that society has recently been lacking.
If you ever feel lost, alone, or left behind in our fast-moving world, I recommend entering a bookstore. It will give you time to think and a sense of clarity. You’ll realize that bookstores are so much more than places that sells books, and that is why they continue to thrive despite the threat of Amazon.
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