When bookshops turns into “bookshops”

I like books, so it’s only natural I like bookshops too. Or, perhaps LIKED should be the expression used.

When I started liking bookshops, somewhere back when I started liking books, libraries, and anything carrying books, one of the big things was how these places enabled me to go browsing. Reading spines, picking up a book to get a feel of it, weigh in in my hand, decide if it was a “buy me” or a “put me back”.

Bookshops used to be palaces for book lovers, with muffled sounds, occasionally some words between a clerk and a patron.

Books in Sweden was outrageously expensive, though, and one day back in 1996 or so I found Amazon.com. I actually have no idea what was my first book bought from them but I remember sending half of my credit card number by email and, and the other half by fax because there just wasn’t such a thing as secure online payment, and the pages were all that special web grey everything was before html expanded to allow background colour. Back then returning customers got Yule gifts – I still have a mouse mat, and a hot drinks mug.

About every fourth package got stuck in customs, increasing the cost by 25%, but even so it was worth it.

I guess it was back then it all started, and that I am part guilty – the decline of the brick’n’mortar bookshops. They have been threatened for some time now and the last handful of years I have consciously done my best to support them. Every now and then I take a detour to a bookshop. When I look for something SF or F I visit SF Bokhandeln, else I go to Akademibokhandeln at Mäster Samuelsgatan. Lately I have been forced to order from an online entity nonetheless, because the books that I’ve been looking for has been very much absent from the shelves.
But at one special occasion the book WAS there but scandalously overpriced – buying it online from a company functioning as the online presence of Akademibokhandeln (Bokus.se) made it over 100 SEK (about US$14) cheaper. I had opted to support the shop with a street window but decided to leave without making a purchase.

Last week I went there again. I decided some time ago that I wanted to read Macbeth and I was pretty sure the largest bookshop in the Swedish capital would have a copy. It is a famous play by a famous playwright – a classic. Enter bookshop. I already knew there was a instore Apple Store at the entrance. I ventured further, and realised they had discontinued their paperback/english paperback section on the second floor. I went in search for it and found it had replaced a huge and interesting section of interesting non fiction books (maps and travel miscellanea). Also they had managed to make place for a rather large section of DVD’s… anyway, I found a shelf labelled English Classics, and started to browse. No Shakespeare. I found a clerk, who directed me to the “drama shelf”, in the “red section”, a mezzanine floor away. I went there. I searched. I asked another clerk. He told me he understood my difficulties and led me to the shelf. It turned out to be about three metres of swedish drama, and perhaps one and a half of english language drama. He started to look for the book, looked at me, shaking his head. Not one edition of Macbeth. He went to his desk, made a search, and informed me that no, they weren’t planning on ever stocking it again (admittedly this was the Oxford Shakespeare edition; they MIGHT have some other editions, in the future – I don’t know).
Hello! It’s MACBETH!!! I don’t expect the paperback peddler at the train station to shelve it but I d***n right expect to find it in the largest bookshop in town.

In all honesty I don’t think I’ll go there again for quite a while. I demand more of something called a bookshop than one million copies of the latest Dan Brown or Twilight book. And don’t get me started on this annual sale that’s about to start… I won’t dictate other peoples’ tastes in books but that anything at all, beyond cookbooks and children’s books, gets sold is a mystery to me.

Somewhere at the beginning of this rant I mentioned SF Bokhandeln. They’re a bit better than the general bookshops. But almost every second time I visit I have to leave without what I was looking for. As an example they don’t stock one single volume from Roger Zelazny. Not in the year or so I have been looking. And often only half of the books in a series is available, even when they’re possible to order, instant delivery, online.

Note that I SUPPORT their existence. I go out of my way to buy books from real life shops. I’m very close to giving up on them, however. I’ll have a bit more patience with SF Bokhandeln. But Akademibokhandeln… bye bye. You’re not a bookshop any more.

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Almost a review: The Foreigner series, by C.J. Cherryh

My first encounter with the fiction of C.J. Cherryh was the Foreigner books. An online acquaintance (‘Fox, I’m looking at YOU!) thought I might like those books and he wouldn’t let down until I tried. So I did. Rough going, initially, and I’ll admit that I perhaps would had not gotten to the real story had he not told me to keep at it.

Later I learned that those initial parts were requested by the publisher, and I’m in two minds about them being there – they do explain some of the back story but they also feel pasted on.

Anyway, I got hooked more or less on the first page of the real story, and while waiting for #9 to be published in paperback (it felt infelicitous to buy the third of the third in another format) I went on to read – and enjoy – Cyteen, and then DownBelow Station… and the rest of the Company Wars books. And The Faded Sun omnibus. And Chanur. And some more, notably 40,000 in Gehenna and Wave without a Shore. And as I reread the Foreigner books I came to think of them as rather lightweight and feelgood, compared to those other books.

Still, loved them, and have reread them times innumerable. Most recent time was these past few weeks – I was in the process of starting Green Mars but had a monumental two-day headache – NOT what you need when you deal with Kim Stanley Robinson! – so I decided to read the first Foreigner story arch. I ended up reading most of the books, just omitting the two dealing with the Reunion situation, which I have reread more than the others. And I can’t help but feel that despite the sometimes not top-notch editing, and with some problems regarding continuity (for example in Deliverer it’s Geigi’s niece that wants to marry but then in Conspirator it’s the nephew, or Bren suddenly not knowing which province Banichi is from, despite being told that in book #1), and with a lot of the story going on inside the head of Bren, it’s still a fantastic and worthwhile piece of storytelling.

The way the tale deals with topics as language and culture, and how language reflects culture, is informed, as is the topics of alienation and assimilation – might I even mention Stockholm Syndrome, when I’m at it? – and while, yes, it’s, for the most part, lightweight in comparison that IS in comparison with works like Cyteen, which could be read as a Russian classic turned crime story. Which means people expecting a lightweight space opera probably thinks it too dense. Me? I just love it. And with #10 – Conspirator, the first book in the forth arch – the whole story took a new and unexpected and very political bent, leaving the reader crave for more.

Luckily book #11 – Deceiver – is announced for April. And – of course I have pre-ordered it, from the brick’n’mortar SF bookshop in town. Because I do want them to stay in business.