George Whitman, the legenday owner of the Shakespeare and Company, died last night at the age of 98. Among bookshop owners he was a bookshop owner's bookshop owner. There are bookstores and then there is his. As he said,
“I wanted a bookstore because the book business is the business of life.”In a sense it isn't much too look at. There is the famous front in green and yellow and the wishing well in the front. Inside it looks like any other used/rare bookstore - books mostly arranged in some fashion with piles of others in the aisles waiting to be organized. And yes! the library feel with dust on old hardbound books that seemed to have not moved in decades. NY Times: George Whitman. I won't repeat the biographical details, names and his connection with another legendary bookshop in San Franciso - City Lights Bookstore. It's all in the article. What seemed to me most important is that he wanted this bookshop to be a nursery for aspiring writers. A place where they could work and stay (for free). He gave them lodging upstairs. There are no baths and the aspiring writers used the public baths in the 5th/6th arrondisements. The lodgings were spare, but with a view.- it's within a stone's throw away from the dead center of Paris (the Notre Dame) and on the left bank of the Seine. Of the 40,000 or so people that Whitman gave shelter to, I have yet to read that anyone of them became particularly famous. That's not the point. The point is that his man loved books and supported the written word. As a failed novelist, he realised that hungry artists need a refuge. (Listen to interview on The World) A few months ago, Borders (a local Ann Arbor company) shut it doors. When the other leading light of Ann Arbor bookstores Shaman Drum closed a few years ago, some people blamed Borders. Actually, we did it. As far as I can recall, the last 20 books that I have purchases have been from Amazon. I also admit rather shamelessly that whilst a graduate student, I did browse books from Borders, but only 10% of the time I actually bought books there (I did buy some coffee). You, me and the rest of the world in wanting things cheaper and faster have caused newspapers and bookstores to fail. Our natural tendency is to find patterns or make much of mere coincidences. Ideas seem to sort of converge in time. I watched the documentary Page One on the New York Times on Tuesday night. It talks about the changing nature of media and the end of newspapers. There are very few blogs that actually generate original content. Everything (including this blog) is meta-commentary. The internet (Craigslist, Amazon, Zillow, company websites) killed the revenue streams for the newspaper. Also, the internet has fostered this mistaken idea that everything should be free. here has to be a new model. In the documentary which was largely sympathetic to the NYT and its survival did present the view as echoed by the editor of the Atlantic - 'there is critical difference between "it shouldn't fail and it can't fail".' The market will do as it must. Shaman Drum was supposed to be replaced with a non-profit community center for writers. In an ironic twist it's now Five Guys - a burger and fries joint - that now purveys real food. No more food for the mind. I say this half-facetiously, as there has been no real material loss. Its more than adequately made up by Amazon and other websites. You can still get books. It's completely true that the selection, cost, suggestions, reviews online are greatly better than trying to look for the same from a bookstore. At the same time, the cultural loss is quite great. I greatly miss the Borders on Liberty. I spent many a cold, wintry day browsing through the shelves, discovering new books and reading introductions and prefaces of books (that I didn't buy). Yet, it's now a big hole on that street. The great center of learning - Ann Arbor - now has one large bookstore - Barnes and Noble, far away from campus on Washtenaw Avenue. How soon that fold? The question asked at the end of the BBC World News report on George Whitman was, "Do you think anyone would want to open such a bookstore now?" One would like to believe "yes", but in reality, no one will. The old model is clearly outdated and won't survive except as a charity case. The only way that such 'institutions' (it's fair to call them that) will survive or revive is that they need to be managed more like National Parks. Public goods that need to preserved by those who need them the most - the public. Public goods that Adam Smith's invisible hand is always blind to.