February 15, 2011

Buffalo Street Revival

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In general, English majors cry “tragedy” more than most reasonable people. America’s obsession with the Kardashians represents its cultural rock bottom! Front-page newspaper advertising is the first step toward a society where all information is corporate-sponsored! I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by !Twilight

But nothing makes EMs more certain of the coming apocalypse than the demise of our most revered, beloved and altogether quaint institutions: the independent bookstore.

In a sense, this is a real cultural tragedy. Even Ithaca — a locally-owned, locally-grown college town teaming with poets and artists and the like — will have a grand total of zero independent bookstores once Buffalo Street Books closes its doors in March. Soon all that will be left for Ithaca and its art-loving, quinoa-eating citizenry is the small collection of established, corporate-backed books offered by the two chain stores: Barnes & Noble and Borders.

But, while the prospect of wading into the sanitized isles of big chain stores for the rest of eternity seems grim, it is only a matter of time before we see an independent bookstore revival.

This revival is going to happen for two reasons: (1) the Internet makes reading the preeminent way in which we consume information, and (2) popular culture is increasingly fragmented, such that there exists a niche market for literally everything.

For all the endlessly cute cats-with-laundry videos on YouTube, the Internet is still a written-word-based medium. Everything from clicking through stories on Huffpost to stalking someone’s Facebook wall involves reading. And considering the fact that the average college student spends an average of 80 hours a week on the Internet (citation needed), young people are reading way more than we realize.

The popular assumption that the Internet functions as a stupefying device that curbs our intellectual development, one nonsensical Kanye tweet at a time, neglects the fact that the Internet’s reliance on the written word strengthens our overall literacy — something that can only make us better, faster, stronger, more astute readers in general.

More importantly, for independent bookstores and their many mourners, this increased literacy ensures that books aren’t going anywhere anytime soon. Ironically, the Internet — the supposed enemy of all things high brow — has supplied a new generation of readers with the skills necessary to enjoy the fruits of the written word.

Granted, qualitatively, the type of literacy that the Internet cultivates may not directly translate to an appreciation of Nabokov’s clever syntax. But a more literate population that reads all day, every day, can only bode well for the sustainability and economic viability of books.

Therefore, if the book itself is not dead, the primary threat to a potential independent bookstore revival seems to be its already existing mega-chain competitors.

The strengths of these competitors — availability of known titles, convenience, mass appeal, etc. — have been pinpointed as the straw that broke the independents’ spines (hey now!). In reality, the presence of these chains may not be as oppressive as it seems. For one, both Barnes & Noble and Borders are fledging economically. Barnes & Nobles’ stock is 55 percent of what is was in March of 2008 and Borders may have already filed for bankruptcy by the time this goes to print.

But even if the two big chains survive the economic downturn, independents can still make a comeback because of their niche value in an increasingly fragmented popular culture.

Our cultural mainstream has shrunk so drastically in the past few years that the mass appeal of a large chain may not be as valuable as what a small independent can offer. Americans today can more easily abstain from the cultural mainstream than ever before. It’s just as easy to watch English soccer on a Monday afternoon as it is the NFL on a Monday night. It’s just as easy to listen to Deerhunter as it is Lady Gaga. It’s just as easy to read Corey Brezak ’11 as it is Thomas Friedman.

This fragmentation has give people the freedom to access the aspects of popular culture that they are most interested in. The number of people who listen to the most popular band or watch the most popular TV show has dwindled, but the demand for cultural institutions that are specifically tailored to the interests of niche communities has grown immensely. Take the example of vinyl record stores (of which, notably, Ithaca has many). The record store used to be the dominant way to discover and experience new music, then it faced extinction, and now it has reemerged to meet the demand of a small, but significant, community of vinyl enthusiasts.

There is no question that such a community exists for book enthusiasts — people (read: English majors) who are turned off by the hyper-organization of Borders and the impersonality of Amazon. The ritual of entering the cozy confines of a bookstore and discovering a great new book you’ve never heard of can only come from an independent.

Independents cannot appeal to the people whose book-buying experience is the means to finding out if Bella bangs Edward or Jacob. But in a world where you don’t have to understand the previous sentence in order to engage with the popular culture, there is room for the independent.

Tony Manfred is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences and the Sun Associate Editor. He may be contacted at tmanfred@cornellsun.com. The Absurdity Exhibition  appears alternate Wednesdays this semester.

Original Author: Tony Manfred