On Vertigo Books' Death And The Birth Of The Hurried Read


April 19, 2009|By DAVE ROSENTHAL | DAVE ROSENTHAL,dave.rosenthal@baltsun.com

Saturday night, Vertigo Books in College Park was scheduled to hold an Irish wake for itself.

The independent store opened in Washington's Dupont Circle in 1991 and moved to College Park in 2000. From the beginning, it battled fierce competition: super-sized bookstores, online retailers such as Amazon.com, membership stores, e-book readers.

The final blow was the withering recession. "It was death by 1,000 cuts," co-owner Todd Stewart said during Vertigo's store-closing sale, adding that Amazon was "the biggest cut of all."

Vertigo, scheduled to close April 24 or 25, isn't the first or biggest independent bookstore to go out of business; it certainly won't be the last. And such stores wouldn't register a blip in bailout-crazy Washington.

But they matter, and the store-closing signs are another sign of danger for our book culture.

These days, more people are buying books online. More people are downloading books to e-book readers such as the Kindle. Some people have moved even further from books, watching the video version of Jeff Jarvis' What Would Google Do?

That means fewer people browsing bookstores and fewer people at the library. Author Barbara Kingsolver has said we're living in a period that could be described as "Isolation and Efficiency, and How They Came Around to Bite Us in the Backside." She was addressing larger issues - war and pollution - but her thoughts also apply to our book culture, which has been tilting toward the quick sale, the hurried read.

There are some signs of hope.

Book groups remain popular, giving a communal value to the reading experience. Blockbusters such as the Harry Potter and Twilight series have made millions of kids excited about books and given cachet to reading. And bookstores are developing strategies to reach readers; Powell's Books, for example, plans to set up a booth at the Portland, Ore., farmers' market.

Do you think our book culture is endangered or thriving? Let us know in an e-mail or a comment on Read Street.

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