Over the past few weeks, I've bought a lot of books online. (I will duck now as a few people think that's akin to drinking wine with a devil.) But many of the books I've bought are either not available in bookshops here, or are so old that I've had to source them secondhand. I've needed them for my thesis, so it's not like I can wait 6 weeks or more for a shop here to find them. But it did get me thinking about what I do love about bookshops, and as someone said, it's the serendipity.
Many years ago, I discovered Barbara Kingsolver because The Bean Trees was sitting face-up on a row of recommended books at the Grubb Street Bookstore. I went on to buy and read nearly all of her books. Recently I found a book by a guy called John Hart on a display and am now hooked on his books. Similar thing with John Dunning who wrote the Bookman novels (sadly there were only five). For me, that's the first thing a bookshop offers - the exciting possibility of finding a book I wasn't aware of and diving into a terrific story. It's not that I want a page-turner - I want a book that I can sink into and want to keep reading long past lights-out, just like when I was a kid.
Online buying can't match this. I can't pick up the book, read the blurb and then the first two or three pages. All right, sometimes I can, but it's just not the same as holding it in your hand and flicking through and recognising from the "feel" of it that you're going to enjoy it. Sometimes I'm wrong. There have been a couple of hefty Swedish crime novels that ended up being relegated to the donation box. But books here in Australia are expensive - even YA paperbacks are $20+, others are $30. I try to make a solid judgement before buying, and a bookshop lets me do this.
What else do I love? Often being able to have a coffee while I peruse a small pile and make final choices. Seeing what is new, what is popular, what everyone else is buying, just because I'm curious. I don't like sales people asking me every two minutes if I need help. But I like having someone to ask if I get stuck or can't find something. One thing I do hate about very small bookshops - I know they need my money but if I really can't find anything that appeals, I feel terribly guilty slinking out without buying anything!
I used to love Borders (and still like B&N when I am in the US) just because they are so big and I could spend the whole day in there, and a week's wages. But even small shops can have me slapping my own hand to stop way too many impulse purchases. I guess I buy books like some people buy shoes. But all of that love for bookshops still won't stop me buying online as well. It's not so much the cheaper prices (sometimes), it's being able to get books that a couple of years ago I wouldn't have bothered even ordering, because I can, and because someone out there is selling them when I need them.
And my favourite bookshop? The Sun Bookshop in Yarraville. Especially now they have a children's one across the road!