I was walking down the aisle of the largest Japanese bookstore in Taipei, to brush up my native tongue and to catch up with what is going on in my passport country. It had been several months since my last visit. What might had changed? This is what I found: “The Power of Now” “50 Ways to Really Listen” “Japan’s Way”…fast food and patriotic slogans in the form of paper books, filling rows of shelves. When I looked the other way, I saw the usual comics, magazines, and photo books: the time assassins. The bookstore had turned into an opium den selling hard drug and fast food.
I was literally walking the aisle of an intellectual drugstore corner selling energy drinks and vitamin pills for brain, alongside junk food (magazines and juvenile novels) with little nutritional value. From each book I could hear the scream of Japanese readers wanting even more steroid to keep them alive in the stress-laden society as well as that of Japanese publishers resorting to cheap fast drugs to delay their imminent bankruptcy. Despite the catchy slogan on those books that claim they will “revitalize your soul,” the entire bookstore smelled of death. The bookstore has turned itself into an intellectual (I now doubt if I can use that adjective anymore) version of a hospital.
I left the bookstore in disappointment and disgust, which happened for the first time in my life. Maybe what I experienced was unique to the Japanese environment. But as bookstores and publishing industries are closing down everywhere in the world, I do feel the same is happening for other stores too. Eslite, the largest bookstore chain in Taipei, is nowadays giving more floor space to bestsellers, design & architecture photo books, DVDs, boutique furnitures, accessories. The traditional “books” still holds the majority but the trend is clear: shiny and newsy comes first.
I heard from a friend that even with its sophisticated design, a large number of visiting customers, and being the largest player in the town, Eslite is barely making any money from books. The profit comes from selling “stuff,” and books are pullers-in to lure customers in the first place. I have a mixed feeling on what is going on. On one hand I do want a large area dedicated to books. But on the other hand I do know that it is those “extras” that creates revenue to keep the bookstore running. Also, admittedly the extras are what attract customers (including me) when they just want to go outside and need a destination.
I love walking along the shelves because there are almost always new findings, or serendipity moments. That humble small book that gets hooked at the peripheral of my view holds the magical power to a new world, new insights. Giving more space to stuff that sells directly mean deaths for the niches, following the same rule that governs our mother nature.
These days I am starting to receive those serendipity moments online, namely Amazon. The “Customers who bought this item also bought…” list gives me a safe yet interesting bridge to the unseen world. Checking lists created by other people allows me to see an entirely different worldview. The only missing piece of puzzle in Amazon is the “Surprise” function where once in a while a great book that is totally out of my comfort zone pops up. I guess it is a matter of time. And I haven’t even mentioned the heavenly convenience of buying books on Kindle.
The Eslite bookstore is great, but its book corners are increasingly turning into showcases and library (they must soon be forced to redesign the floor so it will become more comfortable sitting on it). Will the bookstores see the same demise as that of the Japanese ones, turning themselves into steroid showrooms before disappearing into obscurity? I know I hold one of the keys. Book lovers need to go and BUY. The paradox is, I am loving books more than ever (thus I visit stores) but I am hating PAPER books more than ever too (thus I buy ebooks online). Will there be a beautiful solution to this dilemma?