There are many reasons why the tiny, scrappy independent publisher I ran from 2001 to 2009, Soft Skull Press, became a publisher with a Pulitzer finalist and books on bestseller lists from the Singapore Straits Times to the Boston Globe to the Los Angeles Times. Those reasons include the quality of the books themselves, the engaging authors, the supportive media (sometimes!). But the main reason people discovered our books, read them, and told their friends about them, is that thousands of people over the decade unpacked a box of books and, in the process of putting one on a shelf, got curious about it, decided to read it, and recommended it to friends, co-workers and, yes, customers.
This process replicated itself for hundreds of publishers and tens of thousands of books, numbers that grew as technology made it easier and cheaper to create traditional printed books. America’s book retail sector grew fast in the 1990s and 2000s (with hindsight, faster than the economy could sustain) to keep up with the growth in the publishing of books, enabled by cheap credit (again, with hindsight, perhaps too cheap). Superstore after superstore opened, offering customers more choice than had ever before been found in most physical bookstores.
But selection, whether of books or of music, was hardly a compelling reason to go to Borders, when Amazon had all the books you could want, and iTunes (or the file-sharing site du jour) all the downloads you could want. We have more culture, more media, than we can now consume in a thousand lifetimes — we don’t need any more choice. What we need is help in choosing. Borders was not offering that. [. . .]
Where will we find all the mini-Oprahs we need to connect writers and readers? Bookstores can and should be sites for this conversation. Increasingly, the good ones are places where people seeking deeper engagement with their culture and society choose to congregate. They are offering language classes, reading groups, singles nights, writing workshops, self-publishing solutions.
Not all bookstores have gotten on board with the transition from being a place where books await customers to being a locale of social and cultural exchange, which happens to support itself in part by selling books. The brilliant Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas has noted that the less a retail experience is focused on selling stuff and the more it is about something else — an event, an occasion, a vision — the more a store will sell.
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Randall Jarrell once argued a point that I will now paraphrase and, in doing so, over-simplify: As a culture, we need book criticism, not book reviews. I sort of agree, but let’s not get into all of that. Having finished. . .