Every business based on a physical location selling us media products is having a tougher and tougher time of it. We’ve grown used to saying goodbye to local record stores. Video stores like Blockbuster and Hollywood Video are finished; even LA’s classic Rocket Video is on its last days. Borders is dissolving as we speak, surely Barnes & Noble is facing some tough decisions. We even heard recently that this was the lowest box office summer since 1997, and seen small theaters fold and multiplexes with huge, empty lobbies.
Part of the problem, surely, is that these places either a) feel like sterile dispensaries of product, in the case of the large chains, or b) serve a small niche very well and loyally, but just can’t pull a sufficient profit when faced with the low-priced, conveniently distributed digital version of their products. A chain store may be able to stay afloat on volume, but doesn’t inspire loyalty. A beloved local shop inspires loyalty, but can’t maintain volume serving their small following. No matter how much we enjoy books, or comics, or records, we can’t spend enough to keep their lights on. And so we, as lovers of culture, stand to lose both.
I recently heard about a seemingly wonderful place that may offer an alternate solution, as well as some hope. The Bookshelf, an independent outlet in Guelph, Ontario, pulls a sort of hipster hat-trick (an appropriately Canadian metaphor): it’s a book store, an independent art-house cinema, and a gourmet bistro all in one.
Now I haven’t been to Guelph to check it out — if you can believe it, Ontario college towns aren’t in my regular travel calendar. Nor do I know how well they’re doing business-wise. But there’s a bit of magic about this.
Instead of struggling to serve one slice of the local cultural appetite well while still making a living, they’ve found a few closely tied, overlapping segments to serve in one place. This lets them sell tickets, paperbacks and meals to the same community. By offering more in one place, they’re forced to use the space smarter, which means curating their selection more personally — one of the only remaining reasons to keep going back to a physical store run by real humans anyway. And by offering more of the things that specific community loves, they give that community more little reasons to love them and keep coming back.
Personally, I’ve had similar fantasies of a book club/comedy venue/beer bar. An intimate, not-too-loud place to celebrate the written and spoken word with a pint to ease the ensuing conversations. Of course, those may just be my own eccentric tastes overlapping in a venue that would only do a good job of serving me and a few of my nerdiest, brew-lovingest friends.
I’m the type of person who is always in the middle of some book or another. Finish one, pick up the next. Lots of people are like this I know, it’s not that special.
I do feel like a lot of my colleagues, however, tend toward reading for their profession a majority of the time. I get the impression that they’re constantly ‘studying up’, if you will. And sure, any spare moment during my day at the computer, I’m likely to be reading trade publications, inspiring blogs, research studies and all that.
When it comes to extracurricular time, however, I read novels almost exclusively — with the occasional well-written essay collection, short story volume or graphic novel for fun. And I’d started to wonder if maybe this was a detriment in the long run. Thank you, then, to the Psychology Today blog for pointing out it may not be after all:
I [ed: Susan Cain, author of the blog post] just came across a study suggesting that fiction readers tend to be more empathic than non-fiction readers. This could of course be correlation rather than causation — maybe the kind of person who likes fiction is more empathic to start with — but the researchers think not. They believe that there’s something about exposure to fiction — the direct immersion in another person’s mind and body — that stimulates our empathic muscles.
Now I feel so much more justified in my choices, it’s a great relief. My peers in the field of “knowing how people think and why they do what they do” can all read the same trend reports and look at the same sources of data and we can all say we understand people so well. But it’s gratifying to know that scientists back me up on what I’ve thought all along: you can always research the details, but a real sense of people and how they work — what they feel, how they tick — is a much deeper skill. Knowing that that skill can be strengthened by reading fiction, something I’ve always adored, makes me think I’m in the right business for the right reasons. Not to mention letting me breathe a sight of relief that I don’t have to start browsing the business section to stay good at it.
As a side note, I think this applies to some degree to my favorite bands as well. Several of them are what you’d call quite literary. Storytellers. Creators of well-fashioned characters and scenes that evoke emotion. Maybe all these things are related, maybe not. Do I tend to favor more ’empathic’ bands, or am I just a geek for language and its skillful application to song, I don’t know. Nonetheless, one of my favorites has put out a record this spring that ranks among his best, so do check out The Mountain Goats’ All Eternals Deck if you’re in the mood for an album of stirring songwriting. I’ve been especially likely to be singing “Prowl Great Cain” these past few weeks.