A thoughtful piece in the University of Connecticut’s UConn Today by Law school dean Jeremy Paul entitled Who Killed the Bookstore: After All, It Was You and Me echoes my concern about the dissappearance of bookstores. These centres of culture and contemplation clearly represent a significant public good – one that bald marketplace economics does not recognize. If consumers and governments don’t understand and do something about the threat posed by virtual, impersonal, online shopping, then towns and cities will suffer, strip malls and chain stores will dominate, and community life will be impoverished, to the detriment of all. What to do? Search for bookstores near you on this site, go visit them, and buy a book.
Cheaper prices drive individual consumers to take actions that end up depriving everyone of the public resource the bookstore has always provided. And the consumer may regret this only after it’s too late.
Market skeptics offer few viable solutions. They wonder why we would ever expect the invisible hand to produce socially desirable outcomes. They cheer public institutions, such as our local libraries, as places to bring people together around books in settings that don’t depend on consumer payments other than the occasional fine for late returns. Libraries are to be treasured, and I predict they will become more rather than less important in coming years. But there will never be enough tax dollars or philanthropic contributions to permit libraries to replace the many books now available for browsing and purchase through the national network of bookstores.
What we need is a better understanding that markets are something that we build together, and so we can search for rules that produce the life we want not simply the cheaper prices we crave. In this case, we should be striving for an approach that blurs the public/private distinction that now sharply divides the library from the bookstore. This means creating a way to get people to pay a bit more for their books than they now do online, knowing that their shopping is part consumption and part philanthropy.