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Friday, March 21, 2008

The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop

Lewis Buzbee’s celebration of the bookstore springs from his observation that 90 percent of people who buy books still leave home to do their shopping in a bookstore. These are the people who know they could more easily buy the book they are searching for by clicking their mouse around Amazon’s website, but they cannot resist the lure of a real bookstore. There is just something special about being surrounded by books and other people who, to one degree or another, feel the same as we about books. As Buzbee says, even if we do not actually speak to other shoppers, they are part of the experience of shopping for books and they can often accidentally lead us to a book we would have otherwise missed.

The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop is a combination memoir and book/bookstore history. Along the way, Buzbee explains the evolution of the book from rare hand-copied pages affordable only to the wealthy upper class to mass produced paperbacks that sometimes sell in the millions of copies. He does the same for the bookseller, a calling that for many feels like a vocation they were destined for from birth. Buzbee’s has been a life centered around his love for books, and the memories he shares of his days working in bookstores and as a publisher’s sales rep are the heart of The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop.

Not surprisingly, Buzbee’s focus is on independent bookstores rather than on the big chains which, along with Amazon, dominate the bookselling business today and he emphasizes just how difficult a business it can be for bookstores, authors and publishers alike. Avid readers often moan about the cost of new books but Buzbee provides the numbers that explain where the money goes: bookstores can receive as much as a 45 percent markdown on the cover price, the publisher gets about 35 percent of the price, the printer about 12 percent, and the author maybe 8 percent. That means that each hardcover sold puts about $2 in the author’s pockets, an amount that he or she probably shares with an agent. Keeping in mind that most books are published in numbers of less than 10,000 copies, it is easy to see that few authors will become millionaires from the proceeds of their books. And though it might appear that the bookstore’s cut is an inappropriately high percentage of the money generated, Buzbee points out that an independent bookstore with gross sales between one and two million dollars will be lucky to net more than $100,000 for the year. Bookselling is not a high margin business for anyone involved.

The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop is filled with stories and thoughts that will intrigue and delight book lovers, those readers who are always drawn to books about books. We are an optimistic lot when it comes to the future of books and bookstores although we do tend to get a little nervous when we read of the closings of so many independent bookstores and the supposed pending death of the publishing industry as we know it today. Buzbee has heard all the “gloom and doom” talk and he closes his book with this reminder: “It is important to remember that the death of literature, of a literary culture, is not an idea that we twenty-first centurions invented. In the nineteenth century, the invention of the bicycle was believed to mark the end of civilization; we would become leisure addicts and reading would surely cease. The same was said of radio in the 1920s and of television in the 1950s. And at later dates, rock-and-roll, premarital sex, and the jet ski would be cited as literary destroyers. Let’s not forget that critics also wailed and gnashed their teeth when parchment replaced papyrus, and when Gutenberg printed his first Bible.”

Buzbee’s writing style is a little dry at times but his little book has a lot to offer to the booklovers amongst us.

Rated at: 4.0

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