Lessons from Record Store Day or Considering a Day for Bookstores

“For a true collector the whole background of an item adds up to a magic encyclopedia whose quintessence is the fate of his object.”

~ Walter Benjamin, Unpacking My Library

Lines forming early at Underground Sounds in Ann Arbor, photo by David Brenner, annarbor.com

April 20th was Record Store Day, an international day created in 2007, by a group of independent record store owners to promote vinyl recordings. Early that morning across the country, people lined up in front of small independent record stores to purchase and celebrate the survival and unique qualities of vinyl recordings. Limited edition albums from Van Dyke Parks, The Band, Half Japanese and over 200 other artists were released that day – with similar hard-to-find recordings released once each year on  Recordstore day.

Excitement and buzz surrounds these small edition recordings, all simultaneously issued on the third Saturday of April. People discuss the selections and blog about them months ahead.  Old blockbuster LPs, never released recordings, unusual oddities and dozens of limited editions come out for eager waiting fans.  Forget about Christmas, this is the busiest day of the year for many indie record stores, who begin stashing rare goodies  months in advance all adding to feeding frenzy of Record Store Day.

“Steve Jobs was a pioneer of digital music. His legacy is tremendous,” Young said. “But when he went home, he listened to vinyl (albums).” -Neil Young [ source: Christian Science Monitor]

Real music lovers, audiophiles and anyone passionate about music, have long known the fact that vinyl recordings are superior in tonal quality to CDs or mp3 files, which use compression to digitize the sound. Compression lops off the highs and lows, reduces depth and equalizes tones resulting in a bland duller sound quality. The beauty of liner notes, gatefold designs and the artwork that comes with a 12″ format is also unsurpassed by the weaker CD or MP3 formats.  The advantage to the compressed formats (as with pdf files for books) are cheapness and portability. “In 2008 more people purchased vinyl records then in the past 20 years” and the numbers are increasing every year. [source: The Vinyl Revival and the Resurrection of Sound] All praises to the indie record shop. They’ve amassed a giant grass roots effort, that is well organized and working on a large scale. RSD is also an essential tool in the fight against online shopping. A new generation has now discovered the pleasures of warm acoustic listening. Long may vinyl spin!

Perhaps bookstores could take a page from the playbook of record stores. Could publishers and bookstores combine a strategy to create a parallel day of international book mania ? What would a bookstore day look like? The prospect of early morning line ups for limited book releases, readings, signings, artist designed book bags, food, art and events — would be an inspiring sight. The last time people  lined up early for books was during the Harry Potter book releases, which were spontaneous grass-roots events.  Imagine a day that could create “book fever” on a grand scale – how fun and positive that would be.

In some ways, indie bookstores seem even better poised and organized to bring off a day of book celebration, than record stores selling vinyl. They both have survived similar experiences, especially in their handling of the digital gulch. Nobody seems to be talking about the huge piracy issues involved with music or books much anymore. Like the pirating of music and video in torrents, entire hi-jacked libraries of 2500 pdf- e-books are now offered for free and take only  a couple hours to download. Music and bookstores both deal with a huge variety of selections, taste and styles -they act as gathering posts for discussion, learning and disseminating culture. Bookstores have regional groups, newsletters, the ABA and other support systems at their disposal; great resources they could rally together on a day for books. Perhaps vinyl music collectors are a more passionate and dedicated  breed of collector than book readers and maybe the pressure from online retailers and piracy issues forced record stores into become more agile and better retailers. Record store Day has helped bring attention to the stores and the products they offer.

World Book Night, is an active charity of free book giving. It arrived in the States last year. Every April 23rd, a network of thousands of volunteers from around the world, have given their time in a selfless effort to spread the joy of books. WBN is a growing concern and there are many testimonials about it changing lives and effecting people strongly, but as a solution for readers finding their way back to bookstores, I’m not sure its effective or even meant to accomplish that. 

Giving away books  (a highly personal item, not unlike records) randomly to people on the street without regard to their reading habits or personal preferences, is like spinning a roulette wheel. The giver is familiar with the book and can try and give the recipient an idea about its content – but in most cases that’s an unlikely scenerio. Sometimes a random act of kindness is given without much thought or concern for its outcome. People will pick up almost any free sample handed to them on the street – but the process of choosing a book or record (especially when you are using your own money)  is a highly personal one, needing thought and effort put into it. Can you imagine if people gave out top 40 records on the streets as charity to “non-music lovers” or “light listeners”- what would the effect be? I believe most of those recordings would end up in the garbage or un-listened to.

Book Crossing is another recent effort at random book giving that tracks each book with a code, you can then follow online where your book has travelled to, and see what comments a reader has left. It’s like a public lending library for vacationers, similar to the anarchistic Little Free Library system. These are all great ideas and serve to get a limited number of books  into the hands of people that might have a hard time finding books. What might be useful, or added to all these systems of free giving is the foundation of a Bookstore day, a celebration of book culture tailored to and targeted for readers of all ages and especially to book collectors  -a day that could only  happen if a number of bookstores desire and act on it, just as the record stores did. Tying the day to romance and gift-giving as its done in Barcelona will only add to the day’s mystique and popularity.

The personal choice of one’s reading material is something done more effectively inside a bookstore or library in private. The act of browsing is a physical, visual and intellectual art, one that needs to be experienced and practiced. Art galleries, museums, libraries, music and bookstores all offer that experience at little or no cost. Browsing is now regarded as an online activity between a persons digital browser and his cell phone or computer. In his essay The Painter and Modern Life, poet Charles Baudelaire put forth the idea of the flâneur as someone strolling down the street, wasting time but still engaged with life, actively looking. The strolling person can wander freely and linger on his way, aware and in contact with their physical surroundings, engaged in thinking, an endangered act these days. Browsing slows life down and gives the mind breathing room. It allows chance encounters and discoveries to happen, and you begin to find out who you are as a person.

Crowded book browsers and book stalls in Barcelona on April 23rd: St. Jordi Day in Spain

Many days now exist that celebrate book culture. World Book Night, which began in the UK is now spreading rapidly. WBN has usurped  St. Jordi Day , a booksellers holiday that began in Barcelona in 1927. On April 23rd, droves of people wander through the streets of Barcelona, searching out bookstores and bookstalls to purchase books. It is a holiday for browsing and gift-giving. In its original intention,  La Diada de Sant Jordi is comparable to St. Valentines day. It combines books and flowers into a highly personal and meaningful contact between friends, lovers and loved ones. This day of books makes people feel good, emotionally connected and stirs the economy in Barcelona, having a direct positive effect on readers, booksellers and publishers.

Sant Jordi day was created by a bookseller that wanted to inspire passion into book giving. He chose April 23rd because it was the death anniversary of both Shakespeare and Cervantes in 1616, and the feast day of Saint George. In the Detroit area, Núria (a native of Barcelona) and Elie, are both wine merchants and committed art advocates who have started “The Society of Saint Jordi” several years ago through which they produce The Day of Books and Roses festival held at the Ferndale Public Library. They bring together books, authors, musicians, food and wine as a continuation of this wonderful tradition.

World Book Night has taken the booksellers holiday (April 23rd) and practically removed the bookseller from it. WBN selects the books from a panel of librarians and booksellers and is able to give them away because they are donated by publishers and the authors forego any royalties on WBN books. The system uses bookstores as drop off points and distribution centers for the thousands of hand-to-hand givers.  WBN hopes these book giveaways will change lives and create new readers, giving non-book buyers and “light readers” a taste of contemporary classics. I’m hopeful that many life-changing events can occur and applaud any charity directed at the poor and needy, especially among those unable to afford or get in touch with books. If the intention of WBN is to create lifetime readers, then why not aim their resources and efforts at very young, or impoverished children — they are really the ones on the front lines of literacy and picture books would be much easier, lighter and practical to print and distribute. Putting books in the hands of children will help them create their own libraries  and may help improve the future of the book.

World Book Day is an international celebration sponsored by UNESCO but seems most heavily organized in the British Isles. On that day, children are given tokens or vouchers for pre-selected free titles available at any bookstore, or the child can use the tokens to get a discount off any new book at a bookstore. This is one of the largest book and reading stimulus programs in the world, and offers “big celebrations of reading with millions and millions of vouchers for free books going out to kids.”– while bringing children into bookstores, the vouchers  also allow for freedom of selection, an important element in supporting and creating readers for life.

International Children’s Book Day is April 2nd (the birthday of Hans Christian Anderson) and also celebrates books and reading for children. Their Children in Crisis program, “provides support for children whose lives have been disrupted through war, civil disorder or natural disaster.” This group is based in Switzerland and seems to be running on limited resources. I’d love to support any program that empowers children (or adults) by allowing them to choose their own books -and to find them inside of bookstores. If a token works in the UK, why not adopt that here?

Perhaps Bookstore Day – or the promise of a global San Jordi day will come to pass when booksellers feel it imperative to make it happen. Authors and publishers could create special works that celebrate the book – and we’d have a one day party to announce and spread this conspiracy of book mania. Working in a bookstore is a liminal position, an uneasy balancing act. Attacks come from all directions. Publisher’s can seem both supportive and threatening -while the looming specter of a paperless, book free world appears both possible and dismal.  We remain here to try and  postpone the book-replacing e-readers in our Fahrenheit 451 world as long as possible. The Kindle is just another name for book-burning. By keeping book culture alive and prosperous inside bookstores, we can all  take part in slowing down their advance. Just as the premature death of vinyl records was called too soon and reversed by Recordstore day, so might a similar reversal and appreciation of book culture be accomplished by a united bookstore day celebration.

UPDATE: Since the writing of this essay, Bookstore day came to pass a year later in 2014 in California. It was later rolled out to the rest of the USA, and is now an annual day celebrated on the last Saturday in April. World Book Day was ended as a national day sponsored by the ABA. Recordstore day continues to grow and thrive. 


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