In April, Elizabeth Harris reported for The Times that unexpectedly, Barnes & Noble sales were up. And book sales in particular — as opposed to its other offerings, like freebies and games — are up 14% from the start of the pandemic. Harris wrote, “Today virtually the entire publishing industry supports Barnes & Noble.”
Barnes & Noble’s resurgence is a win, not just for us ’90s nostalgic kids, but for readers in general. And for our social discourse. Amazon’s algorithms sell us books, but they rarely lead us to those hidden treasures that, by chance, we discover in a bookstore. In physical stores, we can literally come across ideas that we would never have found otherwise.
I lived near a self-proclaimed “radical” bookstore in Austin. It’s the kind of place I might come across a book about queer contributions to the labor movement or anarchist movements around the world. I’m a mum with a van and I’m an Anglican priest. These probably aren’t the books Amazon would choose for me, which is precisely why I loved spending time in that store’s stuffed little aisles. I would leave with a book under my arm, pages full of perspectives that I would never have encountered otherwise.
Barnes & Noble may not have such a radical and diverse book store, but it offers the possibility of discovery in ways that algorithms and screens simply cannot. We need independent bookstores, but at this point we need all the physical bookstores we can get. We need as many opportunities as possible to encounter books in nature, offline, books we can pick up and be surprised, books in spaces we can browse and share with others.
So while I’m drawn to bookstores because of my nostalgia, there’s more to it. I believe in bookstores in part because I believe in pluralism. I believe we need diverse ideas, competing worldviews, and mutually exclusive truth claims that are deeply and respectfully discussed in our culture. I believe that the best, truest, and most beautiful ideas rise to the top, and because of that, I believe that, as my friend Karen Swallow Prior says, echoing John Milton, we should “read promiscuously “.
But we don’t usually encounter the same depth of ideological diversity among online books. I go to Amazon with a book in mind, I buy it. That’s it. No browsing, no day browsing shelves full of authors I’ve never heard of. Sure, there are listings on Amazon, like “Find your next read” or “Products related to this article,” and I’m grateful they’re there. (After all, I’m an author who wants people to buy my books “everywhere books are sold.”) But ultimately, the books I come across online are curated for me, just me.