Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Brick & Mortar Shopping

There is no mystery why brick & mortar bookstores are currently fighting for their lives: their selection sucks.

I was given an assignment by WifeRat to pick out books for five young men in our family. The last time we were up north we noticed that the only book in any of the three kids room's was the Bible. Now the Bible's a fine book with some interesting stuff in it, but it really shouldn't be the only book a young person owns. I was a voracious reader as a teenager and so I'm pretty well suited to the task of picking out books for boys ranging from the ages of 10-20.

The youngest of the boys plays hockey, so I thought "This Can't Be Happening at MacDonald Hall" would be a great selection for him. If you want to get a kid into reading, you don't hand him a copy of "War and Peace" and start blathering on about what a great piece of literature it is and whatever the fuck it is (I never read it so I don't know) that's supposed to make it so great. To introduce a 10-12 year old to a life long love of reading, what you do is give him (or her) a book about something they're already interested in and make sure the shit is entertaining. Once you get a kid past the hurdle of reading that first book and making it an enjoyable experience that they want to repeat, then they're hooked. "MacDonald Hall" is short, funny, and features hockey prominently; the proverbial no-brainer.

Unfortunately, not only did Barnes & Noble not have the book in stock; the shit is out of print and they had no way of getting it for me. Strike one!! OK, I can live with that. "MacDonald Hall" was written thirty years ago by a Canadian, so it's understandable how that might not be on the shelves.

The next youngest kid is a sophomore in high school, the perfect age to read Cormier's "The Chocolate War." A great book about alienation and isolation, standing up for yourself and learning about the true cost of taking a stand. These are all themes that young teenager should be exposed to. Too often when we try to explain to young folks about morality or taking a stand, we present it in a vacuum as if the only choice that has to be made is the choice to do the right thing or the wrong thing; that there is no price to be paid for doing the right thing and never anything to be gained from doing the wrong thing. I roll over to the Teens section and find some of Cormier's later work, but not the book I wanted. Strike two!

There is also a senior in high school who is the older brother of the two previous knuckleheads. He's all about becoming a pilot so I thought the James Michener novel "Space," that I read in high school, would be an appropriate choice. Not only is the book about a topic that he's interested in (pilots & space flight), but there are also some salacious bits in there too that he would probably enjoy. I find the half a shelf of Michener they have at the book store and they have about eight to ten of his other novels, but no "Space." Strike three!!

I did a little better with the older boys, the sons of one of WifeRat's other Aunts. The younger of the two of them is out of high school (we'll call him Carl) and working as a diesel mechanic while he tries to figure out what to do with his life. I've got to spend a little time with Carl while I've been up here and he's a nice, respectful, and smart kid with a good heart. My guess is that he probably won't go to college; he's 19 years old and makes like $12/hr, which is a living wage in this part of the country. My goal for him is to make sure that just because he stopped going to school he doesn't let his brain turn to mush. I figure that if I can convince Carl read one book, that book should be "Catcher in the Rye." I'm glad they had "Catcher" in stock because I might have had to blow the place up as unworthy of the title "bookstore" if they didn't have that on the shelves.

Finally there's the oldest of the bunch, he's all into being a business man so I got him "The Handbook of Style: A Man's Guide to Looking Good" by Esquire. A good bit of the stuff in this book I learned from my Father and uncles and the rest I learned from reading Playboy (back when they had articles worth reading) and Esquire. I had the advantage of having an old man who was an Army officer, so he got schooled on all this stuff and passed it down to me and my uncles provided generational updates (they're 7 and 15 years younger than my Dad) to the general principles. Uncle Lars (the two oldest boy's Dad) however, is a fireman and does body work. Lars is a great dude; smart, hard working, dependable, and probably my favorite uncle to throw down a few cocktails with, but he has no use for the finer points of haberdashery. Seriously, if I walked into a body shop and saw someone dressed like this I would leave skid marks out of the place. So I'm trying to help fill the gap in the same way that I hope Lars and Carl will teach my kids how to turn a wrench.

My point (and I do have one) is that 60% of what I wanted wasn't available at the bookstore I went to. I suppose I could have gone to another bookstore, but I doubt I would have fared much better. It's not like I was looking for super obscure books or I'm complaining about the lack of African-American selections in a bookstore in Fargo; I was just looking for regular ol' books and they simply didn't have them on the shelves. It doesn't take but about two or three paperback books to get clear of the $25 threshold for free shipping, no transportation hassles, and you can be done in five minutes. Tell me friends, what's the compelling reason to go to an actual bookstore rather than ordering through Amazon if you already know what you want?

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