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Quite the World, Isn't It?

Two days, two indie bookstore closure announcements

Two neighborhoods in southern California are about lose what can best be described as community cultural centers -- their neighborhood bookstores. In Pacific Palisades yesterday, Village Books announced that after several years of struggling, it would close. This morning, Laguna Beach's Latitude 33, which had been looking for a buyer, announced it's gone by the end of summer.

Independent bookstores have been fighting for survival for a number of years, first challenged by the emergence of chains like Border's (now in bankruptcy) and Barnes & Noble, and now by the convenience and prices of online outlets like Amazon (which bear lower relative overhead than brick-and-mortar stores). Add in a few years of record-setting recession, and survival becomes even more perilous.

This is a shame on a lot of levels. For the reading public, independent bookstores are community centers. It's where we meet up - on purpose or providentially - with others who share our interest, with new practitioners of a craft we love, and with unanticipated ideas.

When you go to Amazon to find a book, almost invariably you get just what you're looking for because you went to the web site with a title, or author, in mind. You find that item, click a few times and are done.

When you go to a bookstore, you find the book as well, but you also have serendipitous encounters with other books and writers, encounters that you miss by buying from your living room. Yes, it's faster, and you save money (lord knows I've done my share of the damage by doing just that). But you also miss that chance encounter with the new. It's like reading a newspaper online versus in print, where every page turn brings you something unexpected, instead of a curated set of headlines and links on a home page.

As a result, our lives, and our engagement with the world around us, slowly become more insular. We get challenged less, so believe in what we believe with more fervor. Something akin to intellectual torpor sets in as we keep returning to the same shelves in the marketplace of ideas. And we, as a society, are worse off for it, another stroke of damage from his secular religion of ours, the quest for a bargain.
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