Losing that used book smell…

Last week, I made an excursion to the University of Toronto’s Gerstein Library.  I was conducting a literature search on some research topics, and I did have a moment of thinking about the ease of downloading these papers onto a USB drive, instead of having to photocopy (at 10 cents a page), stack and haul these papers back home.  I started graduate school in the early days of the Web of Knowledge database, so I never had to dig through volumes and volumes of Chemical Abstracts, but I still had to (usually) find the journals among the stacks and photocopy the articles.  My research laboratory had a filing cabinet of relevant papers, categorized by topic, for us to gather our fundamental knowledge.  If I was running a laboratory today, I’d probably put the fundamental papers on a USB drive or DVD-ROM, for my new researchers to read and use.

While I was in Downtown Toronto, I also paid a visit to the World’s Biggest Bookstore to purchase a particular title – unfortunately, they were out of stock of that book.  (Three other bookstores were also out of this book – I didn’t think it was such an obscure title…)  When I mentioned this to my wife that evening, she laughed as she caught me justifying the purchase of this particular book in paper format – after all, despite my large personal library of books, this would have been the first time in months that I was buying a paper copy of a book that I could have purchased as an e-book.

My foray into e-reading began on my birthday in 2010, when my wife bought me a used e-reader and an electronic copy of Under The Dome, Stephen King’s latest novel at the time.  As it was the usual massive King-sized tome, she commented that I would find it easier to read it in electronic form, which it was.  After reading several books on that e-reader, I graduated to an iPad 2 this past January – the most tangible result of a particularly intense week of work just before Christmas.

I have been dragged, somewhat reluctantly, into the electronic reading world.  At first I disliked not being able to put the book I had just read on my shelf.  Although I have started to get over that, I also lament the loss of physical book stores, particularly for used books.  The biggest used book store in Aurora closed last May, and while I was able to purchase 8 books for $8 at their closing sale, I found it difficult to find much satisfaction in this deal.  I realized that these kinds of deals would be happening more frequently as e-books would take a larger slice of the publishing pie.

The closure of book stores has hit Downtown Halifax particularly hard, and reading about it  has made me nostalgic for my days in graduate school at Dalhousie University.  Most Saturdays, if the weather was not too nasty, I’d walk throughout the downtown, along Spring Garden Road, Queen Street, Barrington Street, and the waterfront.  Only a decade ago, I could pop into a half-dozen or more book stores in one trip  – Back Pages, Doull Books, the one in the basement of Barrington Shops (the name escapes me!), The Book Room, Frog Hollow, Coles, Bookmark, Carrefour Atlantic at the Historic Properties… I even remember when there was a Smithbooks next to the Lord Nelson Hotel!  Dustjacket Books remains in the Maritime Centre, but it was only open on weekdays.  The Daily Grind and Atlantic News were there for magazines.  Every store had a personality, and after a while, I knew which stores would be likelier to have a particular book that I was looking for.

As you can imagine, I would spend hours going through these stores.  Unfortunately, as of now there are few of them left.  That store at Barrington Shops closed while I was living there – they had a great collection of old magazines and novels, but not much in terms of non-fiction.  Frog Hollow Books had several locations through the years, including a location in Park Lane Mall, but their selection of less-prominent authors and subjects may not have helped their bottom line, and they closed in 2009.  The Book Room, once the oldest book store in Canada, closed in 2008 after 169 years in business; the owner spoke of the tenants of the upstairs apartments ordering books online instead of simply walking downstairs and buying them in the store.  (There is now a Catholic book store in its place – they do a good job selling what they sell, but it obviously reaches a much narrower clientele than its predecessor.)  Another store in the process of closing is Back Pages – this store always had a great selection of old textbooks in a variety of subjects.  The largest of the downtown book stores, Doull Booksellers, is moving to Dartmouth this year.  Doull had a large collection of sports books and a whole section on genealogy and Maritime history.  It was also one of the few downtown stores open on Saturday evenings.

My most recent treks through Downtown Halifax are just not the same as before.  A few of these bookstores are still open – Carrefour Atlantic is still going, although the Historic Properties themselves are becoming a shell of their former self; Bookmark and Coles are still operating, and Atlantic News still patrols the corner of Morris and South Streets.

It’s unfortunate that today’s young readers do not get the experience of digging through wobbly shelves, without the guidance of a computer database, just finding the perfect book that they may not have known even existed.  They may find the used book price, but they do not get that used book smell, that anticipation and satisfaction you get from thumbing through a new-to-you book.  My iPad with a newly-purchased book feels exactly like my iPad before it loaded the newly-purchased book.  It’s true that I will still enjoy the content of the book, the author’s story and ideas, but it’s just not the same.

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  1. Comment by Brenton Dickieson (@BrentonDana):

    You beat me to the punch on this one, Marc–my post on Doull’s went up yesterday (http://apilgriminnarnia.com/2012/03/20/lewis-finds-at-the-graveside-of-a-bookstore/), and I didn’t even lament about that store closing in New Glasgow or the ridiculously high used prices in Charlottetown. I love books.
    However, I’ve filled an office and a basement–unless I become unexpectedly wealthy, I’ve reached a limit!
    And I do like my Kobo. It’s not shiny like and iPad, but has a non-reflective matte surface that looks like a book. I don’t want to stare at shiny computer screens any more than I have to.
    So, I’m a hybrid.

  2. Comment by Paul:

    My wife got me a Kindle for my Birthday this year, and I’m a convert. I’m unlikely to ever buy a paper book again. As you might guess, nostalgia has but a tenuous hold on me.

    • Comment by Marc Leger:

      I like the iPad 2, but it is distracting when I try to read a book – going on the Internet, seeing I have an email, and so on. I downloaded a book in mid-January, and it was on a vacation to a house without WiFi that I finally started reading it!

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