One very interesting strand of discussion at our recent workshop related to the change that digital culture has had on our ways of thinking about participation in culture.
To put it very simply, the internet has reshaped our expectations about who gets involved, where and how. At the workshop my attention was directed to a recent lecture given to the British Council by the journalist Ben Hammersley. You can read a transcript or watch a video here. Hammersley explains the way that the internet is shaping the thinking of younger people. It’s a change in thinking he typifies as the difference between a network and a hierarchy. I won’t go into detail explaining what Ben explains very well in his lecture – here I want to reflect on how we might think about how making books and selling them can fit into this new network model…
From my perspective this notion of hierarchies vs networks is very useful for understanding what has changed for readers (and consumers) of books. Once, bookstores were heirarchical places where many people didn’t dare to enter lest they be looked down their noses at by a stiff-looking shop owner who had organised the store (or not organised the store, as the case may be) to suit themselves. Book shopping for most of the 20th century could be an alienating business. Many people just gave up. Would rather buy a book at a news agent or a train station or (later) a supermarket to avoid the discomfort of an antisocial exchange.
This is not so today in a culture increasingly organised according to the network model. Networks not only encourage but necessitate participation from a diverse population. You can’t actually engage with Facebook, for instance, unless you understand that you need to be connected to others. The experience of buying a book today is nothing but networked. Of course, there’s the obvious stuff – buying books online via Amazon and Book Depository… These are networks for books, certainly. But a networked bookstore doesn’t mean an online store. Many online stores are not very well networked at all, or at least, networked in only the most simple ways. Arguably there are much more interesting examples of how books are used, bought, sold and made according to the network experience.
Ironically, I think some of the better, earlier examples of a networked bookstore were actually the big bricks-and-mortar chain stores like (the now defunct) Borders. These stores were a real revolution for consumers in the 80s and 90s because they broke down the hierarchical model for buying books. With their open plan and huge range they made browsing shelves a pleasure. This produced a set of ‘accidental networks’ as browsers zig-zagged around large stores for hours following the associative networks of their shopping fancies (e.g. you find a new book or an author because you’re looking for another and discover it shelved nearby, or because one thought leads to another which reminds you of a long forgotten title you’ve always been meaning to read, etc etc)
More than these accidental networks, the big chain stores really hit it big by encouraging physical networks inside their walls. The introduction of coffee shops encouraged customers to sit down and hang out for a while. They reversed the expectation that booksellers were snooty and intimidating; they broke down the hierarchies that made readers and browsers feel insecure about their interests and opinions. These stores made people relax by offering them other nice experiences to complement their browsing, particularly coffee shops. In the café people could enjoy the atmosphere of books, make a small investment (the price of a cup of coffee), and then move on with the rest of their day. The bookstore was an ambient place where experience could be absorbed, not spoonfed.
Of course, as the internet proliferated across the world and online retail became legitimate and popular the consumer value system changed. Consumers reassessed their motivations for entering a bookstore. Many books were easier and cheaper to obtain online. Both the network and the value system underpinning it changed. The social and ambient aspects that made the big chain bookstores pleasant were being well satisfied in other locations (in real life and also online). The big bookstores lost the allegiance of their network of customers in deference to the economic hierarchies (and we can see now where that has got them). To quote Ben Hammersley, the glue that holds individuals together across the network is “interest, it’s belief, it’s cultural allegiance. And those cultural allegiances can be anything from religion or hard-core politics down to the fact that you and I really like vampire novels and those lot don’t. Or we are Star Wars and they are Star Trek. […] We increasingly find that our allegiance – our social allegiances, our political allegiances – are to people who are likeminded but nowhere near us.”
This is certainly true, but I want to stress the point here that these networks are equally effective and important in creating allegiances closer to home. And indeed, more and more the internet and digital social networks are being used not just to link people with common allegiances who are geographically distant but also proximate. In the small bookshops where I’ve been conducting field work I’ve noticed this happening in almost all cases. Using online networks, these stores involve customers in their community even while they’re not in the shop. This might just be via news updates on Facebook or Twitter, but it also involves more experimental forms of networking: managing events in the store after hours (not necessarily book launches, but quiz nights, sewing classes, music or comedy performances – stuff that has virtually nothing to do with books and how to flog them). The motivation here is to cater to the drives of the network that supports them. Today, a customer at a small independent bookstore needn’t necessarily even be someone who’d identify themselves as a great reader. Instead they find their social and cultural allegiances well catered to by the store and its wider network. Bookstores, it turns out, may not be about books at all…
The bookshop is an ideal place to explore networks because at heart they represent not a place to buy books but a place for engagement. In 1960 an American sociologist Edward Shills said of the bookshop, it is a “place for intellectual conviviality, and it has the same value as conversation, not as a “civilized art” but as a necessary part of the habitat of a lively intelligence in touch with the world.” Being in touch with the world now very often takes place via the internet but theres no reason for bookshops not to continue to involve themselves in the conviviality and conversation of these modern networks. Bookshops can be one place (in actual geographic place and also digitally) that nurture the social and cultural networks facilitated by life after the internet.