Digital art

In this new digital chapter, book stores in decline

In this new digital chapter, book stores in decline
Written by Publishing Team

Re: “Amazon closing all bookstores, pop-ups,” Business, March 3.

It’s a shame brick-and-mortar bookstores have been spiraling downward since the rise of e-books. Some predicted that as more people download books via electronic streaming, the decline would augur a reduction of brick-and-mortar bookstores. I never counted on those Cassandras to predict that Amazon Books — which provided speedy service with lower prices — would close its free-standing bookstores.

According to the World Culture Forum, New York has a below-average number of bookstores per 100,000 people, about “840 bookstores for 8.4 million people.” Yet London, whose population is only slightly greater than New York’s, tallies 360 stores. The Associated Press has reported that in 2012, Buenos Aires, with a population of 2.8 million, had 25 bookstores for every 100,000 people with Hong Kong, right behind it with 22 bookstores per 100,000.

Our neighbors to the south fare much better. Mexico City — with more than double the population of New York City — boasts about 1,400 bookstores. Roberto Bolaño, in his bestselling novel “The Savage Detectives,” recounts his weird adventures in Mexico’s many bookstores. Books about bookstores have always been popular, and people buy them because they love reading books.

A recent Gallup poll reported that the number of Americans who listed reading as their favorite evening activity dropped significantly. “In 2016, 12 percent of adults listed (reading) as their preferred pastime compared with just 6 percent in 2020.” A report from the National Endowment of Arts titled “Reading at Risk,” published 18 years ago, citing the decline in book reading to increased participation in electronic media, including the internet, video games and portable digital devices.

This decline may be attributed to gaming, one of the most popular pastimes among kids, young adults and seniors. And this downward trend in reading has a corollary effect on cultural and civic participation because readers are more likely to volunteer at museums and do charity work, visit cultural events, attend performing arts events and flock to literary venues. But what is literary reading? Any reading of novels, short fiction, poetry or drama in print format, including on the internet.

That slide also translates to declining profits. Consider that in 1990, book buying constituted 5.7 percent of total recreation spending, while spending on audio, video, computers and software was 6 percent. Among parents who’d rather give a child a cellphone than a book, a recent Pew study reports, “Among the 60% of parents who say their child younger than 12 ever uses or interacts with a smartphone, six-in-ten say their child began engaging with a smartphone before the age of 5, including roughly one-third (31%) who say their child began this before age 2 and 29% who say it started between ages 3 and 4.” A child with a cellphone has become the norm.

A sad future lies ahead for those unwilling to read a book or unable to understand literary allusions. But all is not lost: Reading to children at night may be the next best thing since it triggers imagination and nostalgia about growing up for most adults — unless, of course, Alexa is your bedtime storyteller.

Stopgap measures for the decline of reading may be at our fingertips: Maybe resurrecting the One City, One massive book reading program? Or less cumbersome: City Council members could tell us their favorite books and support district reading programs.

Doing nothing is the problem. On the bright side, be glad that San Antonio is not on the list of “2022 Worst Cities for Reading books.”

Rafael Castillo, who teaches writing and humanities at Palo Alto College, is a member of PEN America, the National Association of Hispanic Journalists and the National Book Critics Circle.

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Publishing Team