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The virtues of the local book store

By Richard Glover

The internet is an echo chamber, and never more so than when it comes to books. Whatever message you shout into the valley will come right back at you.

I've only bought six or seven books on my Kindle. As chance would have it, they've all been humorous books with a romantic bent. I am now stuck in some sort of rom-com hell, in which Amazon simply won't accept that I do not wish to purchase every book ever written by Nick Hornby.

All I have to do is mumble the word Amazon beneath my breath and it will bring up the fact I willingly purchased a single copy of High Fidelity. "Customers who bought this item also bought..."

I feel like sobbing and demanding mercy: "It was just a holiday purchase, all right? I had a very long wait at the airport."

Even if I visit Amazon to buy a DVD, they will remonstrate. "What's the story with the lack of Hornby? Have you ever tried Bridget Jones's Diary? What about a bit of Tony Parsons? I mean, you seemed to enjoy One Day and that's not even as good as Hornby."

Amazon, I'm pretty sure, is planning to inscribe my tombstone with the words: "He never really followed through on the whole Hornby thing."

Of course, I could change Amazon's opinion of my literary tastes by purchasing something more upmarket. But how to choose? Well, here's an idea: I could go into a bookshop.

With my own book out, I've been visiting Sydney's local bookstores. I'm struck by how the experience is so different to shopping online. I still get a rush when I walk in the door, that wall of new books across which your eye can swoop, move on and then settle.

On the net, the selling point is that the world is being curated especially for you: five books will be offered, according to your past purchases. Follow Amazon's suggestions each time and your experiences will progressively narrow. In the end you will reach a nirvana in which your equilibrium will never again be challenged by an unexpected book.

It's similar on Facebook and Twitter: choose your friends with care and you can happily believe the whole world is made in your image - obsessed with this band, these TV shows, that political cause.

The net, for all its virtues, acts like a funnel. Its algorithms are poison to serendipity - those happy accidents through which we gather new friends, ideas and enthusiasms.

The real world, by contrast, has this discombobulating glory: it is not curated with you in mind. Sure, you can choose your friends, your newspaper and the suburbs in which you hang out, but the rest of the world keeps impinging, waving from the sidelines, forcing you to take note of its existence.

The wall of books in the bookshop is an example: the titles have not been chosen to fit your previous history of purchases. They've been chosen because they are best-sellers, or were positively reviewed, or because Rosie, the 21-year-old uni student who works there on Friday nights, just loved the author's previous book.

And, in some cases, they are here because of some weird obsession on the part of the proprietor. Who can forget the now-deceased Norton Street Bookshop in Leichhardt, with its voluminous section dedicated to the science and literature of farting?

Amazon may never sleep, but neither, in my experience, does the local bookseller. In the past two weeks I've gone from suburb to suburb, speaking about my book in draughty halls and libraries. By the time I've finished my talk, it's often 9pm, yet still the bookseller is there, credit-card machine at the ready, sitting behind a pile of books whose number tends to the optimistic.

I try to put pressure on the audience to buy a copy, if only to ease the bookseller's burden in terms of boxes to be repacked and heaved home. "Come on," I tell the audience, "I survived a 24-hour interview with Peter FitzSimons, it's only fair my sales should reach at least 10 per cent of his."

At this point a wave of sympathy passes over the audience, some of which is translated into sales.

Would Amazon be here, in a small library, with a cash box and a trolley? Can the local bookseller ever compete against the price of a book offered on a Kindle?

Technology, it seems, is out to get them. But at the end of each night, as I watch them stack the unsold books back into their boxes, and load up their trolley, I hope readers might remember what the local bookstore has always offered: an expanding world, rather than a narrowing one.

I always ask if I can help with the trolley. If I'm sufficiently charming, they might put my book in their window the next morning.

Now try that with Amazon.


First published in the Sydney Morning Herald, July 27, 2013.

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