I was with some friends the other day and we were all book lovers. And then I got to the subject of A Different Bookstore and it's peculiar how it's a place I seldom visit these days. I've been mulling over that fact a few days before and it boils down to one thing: I already own half the books in their science-fiction/fantasy shelf.
Now in itself, that's not a great epiphany. But let me explain the context of what I loved about A Different Bookstore back then. Simply put, the local mainstream bookstore, National Bookstore and Powerbooks, didn't have a wide variety of books (back then, Fully Booked was still taking baby steps in establishing itself as a major bookstore via the franchise Page One). Or rather, since they had a monopoly on the market, whatever books they carried was effectively the only books that would be popular in the market (not counting the secondhand bookstore business). And honestly, that wasn't a lot of variety considering their book-buying policy (buy few titles of "best-selling" books and stock them in huge volumes).
Now when I entered A Different Bookstore, I saw all these great science-fiction/fantasy titles that was otherwise unavailable: Frank Herbert's Dune, Raymond E. Feist's Riftwar saga, George R. R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire, and Douglas Adams's Hitchiker's Guide to the Galaxy. My problem is that nowadays, when I enter the shop, they're still stocking the same books and there's really few titles that are new or innovative. They've turned into what I dislike about huge bookstore chains: they've become formulaic.
Of course that's not what the great epiphany is about. Rather, it's the fact that what makes bookstores special is their relativity with other bookstores. I mean back then, A Different Bookstore was special to me because it was different from National Bookstore/Powerbooks. And a much as I might dislike the latter company (in terms of preference rather than actual hate), I think it's a testament to their dominance of the market that every bookstore that pops up in the Philippines must eventually be compared to them. Smaller bookstores like Booktopia and Aeon Books I like because of how different they are from National Bookstore/Powerbooks. And then of course we have this looming rival bookstore, Fully Booked, and at the end of the day, I'm still comparing them to National Bookstore/Powerbooks in terms of book selection and price.
Of course it's interesting to see all of this in the framework of relativity. If Fully Booked popped up before National Bookstore/Powerbooks, would I be welcoming the latter more and disdaining the former? And what if the niches of smaller bookstores were suddenly filled by the bigger bookstore chains, what happens then? Obviously they can't compete in price. The only asset they might have is convenience, especially when they're situated near a place you regularly visit (which is the case of Aeon Books as they're one street away from a university).
And then there's the topic of book browsing. I mean I can only make all these comparisons because I'm browsing through the shelves of the bookstore. If variety is king, then online book warehouses like Amazon should be dominating the market. But even Amazon is struggling. And perhaps it's not even fair to compare them to bookstores because they aren't bookstores. As I said earlier, they're more like book warehouses with an online model to complete transactions. Sure, they probably stock all the books you could possibly want in your local bookstore but the problem with their service is that you need to know what you're getting. There's little serendipity involved. There's several features they attempt to solve this problem. People can make their own reading lists which other people can view, the editors have their own pics of the month, and you can browse through the inside pages of various books. But these features are, at best, pale imitations of the real thing or take off in a new direction (people's reading list for example is more like the New York's Best-Seller list in the sense that it recommends to you what other people are reading and what you should be reading but it's not really finding out for yourself that this book is worth reading).
Of course book browsing is a relative thing too. It's the product of getting used to books printed on paper. I mean if in the future, every child gets used to reading from a computer screen and become more manageable at using search engines (there really should be a class that teachers effective methods for researching), maybe the Amazon model will truly blossom into its full potential.