I moved house a couple of weeks ago, and I have to admit that on first sight, my new study/bedroom wasn't that appealing - it was dusty, not fully cleaned out, the floors were bare boards and not very well-finished. I worried for a while whether I would actually be able to get it to a state where it felt like home.
Then I put all my books on the bookcases in there, and suddenly everything was OK.
There is something powerfully attractive about a well-stacked bookcase, particularly for those of us of a literary persuasion (though I don't think it's limited to writers). My family home has always been a place of book-lined walls, a place where there were rooms that there wasn't much point wallpapering or painting because the decor was books, and it usually drew admiring comment from first-time guests.
So I understand why we hear so much love of and praise for bookshops, and why people are so upset about the possibility of them 'becoming extinct' (there's an argument to be had over just how possible it might be, but that's not my topic for today). One of the accusations levelled at ebooks is that the ebook will never be able to give you 'that bookshop experience'.
The thing is, when I go into an actual high-street bookshop these days, I'm not sure I get 'that bookshop experience'. The experience I get in the big Waterstones in the centre of Liverpool, for example, is more that of a coffee shop that happens to have some books in it, squeezed in between the board games, stationery and electronics racks. It's not exactly soulless, because there are still lots of books in there and you can't be soulless even with books as soulless as the rack of footballer 'autobiographies', but it's about as debookshopified as it can be.
Second-hand bookshops do a lot better from the point of view of 'that bookshop experience', though they're a sadly rare breed these days. Ask yourself this: which of the following two images is more pleasing from a bibliophilic perspective?
A modern Barnes and Noble:
That second one is actually a library, to be completely honest. I couldn't, on a quick search, find a good image of the inside of a second-hand bookshop. My point, though, is this: there's very little that a modern bookshop offers that a library doesn't.
And bookshops, unfortunately, are becoming a burden on the industry. It's just too expensive to run a high-street shop these days, which leads to bookshops - never a high-margin business - having to gouge publishers for placing, and having to return 50% or more of stock ordered. These costs go all the way up the supply chain, just as the costs of running publishing houses as if they're investment banks (New York rents, corporate investors, business lunches etc.) trickle all the way down. Small wonder, then, that actual authors get squeezed out so badly when it comes to the distribution of money.
There is a role for bookshops in the digital age, definitely, but it cannot be as the primary means of distribution for books. It's just too expensive. It's the same situation as with hardcopy books generally - there is a place for them, for high-quality, aesthetically beautiful, heirloom treasures, but clinging to them as the mainstay of the business is just costing far too much.
Bookshops can offer a tactile experience that an online retailer can't, and a human touch that an 'enter your VISA details here' box can't, but these are premium services, high-grade luxuries, and they belong with the boutiques of a fashion district, or the craft shops and art galleries of a tourist district, not the high street. Clinging to the bookshop in its current, gentrified form, and getting angry about ebooks 'destroying' it, is going to destroy the bookshop far more quickly than any technological shift can, by forcing us to forget why it is that we find bookshops so beautiful.
They say that if you love something, you should let it go... ;)