We Wonder If A New Used Bookstore On Maui Will Help Keep The Sun From Setting On Book Lovers

There were lots of books about sailing, golf and World War II. There was a good fiction section, lots of biographies and a few shelves of Hawaiiana. There was also, when I went in last week, a box of very cheap magazines in the front of the store just opposite a couple shelves of free though slightly out-of-date travel books.

Welcome to the new used book store in Lahaina’s Wharf Cinema Center. It opened Nov. 2, and is run by and for Maui Friends of the Library. Most of the titles–pretty much all of which is priced between $1 and $6–comes from donations. Five thousand of the books are the last of the stock from JoAnn Carroll’s Old Lahaina Book Emporium, which closed a few months ago. The shop itself comes donated from the Wharf, and all labor is volunteer, meaning the operation has virtually no overhead.

“Considering that we haven’t been open that long, every day we’re here we do a bit better,” one volunteer told me. “I’m just glad that we have this.”

This is indeed good news for book lovers on Maui (Self-serving disclosure #1: my interest in this subject stems from both my position as editor of a weekly publication and as author of the new novel Small Island, published in August by Event Horizon Press). There was a time, not many years ago, when there were used and new bookstores located all over the island–the big Borders Books and Music in the Maui Marketplace, most notably, as well as the smaller Borders shops in the Ka‘ahumanu Center, Piilani Shopping Center and Lahaina Cannery Mall. Now there are just three: the big Barnes & Noble in the Lahaina Gateway Center and the Maui Friends of the Library shops in the Wharf and over by the sugar mill in Pu‘unene.

“There is an ecosystem of reading, in which we see that many of the same people who visit their libraries also visit bookstores, purchase books online and read ebooks, and libraries, publishers and bookstores have had a symbiotic, mutually reinforcing relationship for quite some time,” said State of Hawaii Librarian Richard Burns. “As a result, we are very sad when bookstores close—we all contribute to the overall intellectual and cultural health of our communities, and over the years we often partnered and complemented each other’s programs.”

The reasons for the recent tightening of options for the island’s readers are myriad, complex and disconcerting. The opening of the Maui Friends of the Library bookstore in Lahaina is an encouraging sign, but is it enough to keep the sun from setting on Maui’s book lovers?

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It’s becoming clear that reading plays a huge role in the development of a person’s brain. Doctors scanning children during reading show more of the brain in use than that used by adults. Then, as the child grows, reading requires less of the brain to operate. Though reading uses parts of the brain not used in, say, watching television, it actually makes thinking easier. “The secret at the heart of reading is the time it frees for the brain to have thoughts deeper than those that came before,” said writer Maryanne Wolf, who is quoted in Caleb Crain’s 2007 New Yorker essay “The Twilight of Books.”

Such brain development has profound ramifications for society. According to Crain, literate and oral societies quite simply think differently.

“Whereas literates can rotate concepts in their minds abstractly, orals embed their thoughts in stories,” Crain wrote. “In an oral culture, cliche and stereotype are valued, as accumulations of wisdom, and analysis is frowned upon, for putting those accumulations at risk. There’s no such concept as plagiarism, and redundancy is an asset that helps an audience follow a complex argument.”

History, for a society without writing and reading, is a very different concept from our own. “Words have their present meanings but no older ones, and if the past seems to tell a story with values different from current ones, it is either forgotten or slightly adjusted,” Crain wrote. “As the scholars Jack Goody and Ian Watt observed, it is only in a literate culture that the past’s inconsistencies have to be accounted for, a process that encourages skepticism and forces history to diverge from myth.”

Writing allows civilization to record huge tracts of information that make possible the cultural and technical sophistication we enjoy today, but it also forces people to ask questions and evaluate theories. Even someone reading the most vulgar erotica still has to think and imagine in ways the same person viewing pornography never has to.

Of course, people can read all sorts of things besides books: magazines, newspapers, recipes, street maps, milk cartons. But books hold a special place in society. Their size and physical strength (if properly cared for, a book can last for centuries) allows for the recording of incredibly complicated arguments and stories. Of course, their bulk and structure also make them relatively expensive to produce and difficult to store.

That’s why ebooks represent an interesting, and perhaps critical, change to the history of books. Indeed, Swedish furniture giant IKEA recently redesigned its popular “BILLY” bookcase with deeper shelves and glass doors. The reason, according to a Sept. 10, 2011 article in The Economist: “The firm reckons customers will increasingly use them for ornaments, tchotchkes and the odd coffee-table tome–anything, that is, except books that are actually read.”

On an island with limited space and resources, electronic libraries are useful indeed. And industry numbers show rising ebook sales from online retailers like Amazon and Barnes & Noble. For author Linda Nagata, this is a very good thing. Nagata, who has won the Nebula and Locus awards, lives in Kula and prefers to self-publish her fantasy and science fiction work as ebooks. (Self-serving disclosure #2: Nagata gave my novel a favorable review on her blog Hahvi.net.)

“It used to be horribly expensive to self-publish, but now it’s possible to publish e-books for very little, and to publish print-on-demand books for only a little more,” said Nagata in an email. “It was the opportunity I’d been waiting for. I had six out-of-print novels originally published by New York houses. I also had years of experience working in web development and, as it turns out, ebooks are essentially coded the same way as web pages, so I more-or-less knew what I was doing. I eventually published all six backlist titles, a young-adult novel, and The Dread Hammer, an original fantasy novel. Six of the books are available in print-on-demand versions, and all are available worldwide.”

As far as whether it’s possible to make a living at self-publishing ebooks, Nagata calls that the “$50,000-a-year question.”

“It is possible to make a living self-publishing fiction,” said Nagata. “Even beyond the famous names, quite a few people are doing just that. But it’s not easy, and it’s not fast money, and most who try won’t make it. Then again, most who try to make a living through traditional publishing won’t make it either.”

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Of course, the bankruptcy of the Borders corporation–which closed nearly every bookstore on Maui–may not have simply been a bookseller’s failure to swim against the electronic tide. In his Nov. 10 Bloomberg Businessweek article “The End of the Borders and the Future of Books,” journalist Ben Austen makes a compelling case that Borders started out strong in its early years, only to decay and ultimately disintegrate due to bad business practices.
“From 1999 onward,” Austen wrote, “Borders was headed by six different CEOs, none of whom stayed long enough to make the company work.”

Investing heavily in compact discs and DVDs at the cusp of the on-demand, streaming era; buying a stationery company in 2004; poorly marketing its own Kobo e-reader; locating too many bookstores in unprofitable parts of town–all these decisions, Austen wrote, hobbled Borders at a time when competition with Barnes & Noble was at its height.

For Arnie Kotler, the owner of the Koa Books publishing house in Kihei, loss of the Borders chain was devastating. If you can’t sell books, why on earth would you publish them?
“As a local publisher, it’s huge,” Kotler said. “I’ve been corresponding with other writers on how to deal with it. It’s a problem.”

Koa Books opened on Maui in 2005 with Cindy Sheehan’s Not One More Mother’s Child. Its most recent book, Georgia O’Keeffe’s Hawai‘i by Patricia Jennings and Maria Ausherman, has yet to hit the shelves (see page 5 for Anu Yagi’s review of the book). Kotler publishes just a couple titles a year, mostly dealing with progressive politics.

“There are about 60 publishers on Maui, but I’m the only one who isn’t a self-publisher,” said Kotler, who spent 15 years as a book publisher in the Bay Area. Business hasn’t been great, but Kotler didn’t expect that it would be. “It’s never been a smart business move to go into publishing,” he said.

Koa Books is a “labor of love” for Kotler. “I’m not optimistic about the financial side of the business,” he said. “I have a half-time job at a retreat center in Hana. I’ve never drawn a salary from Koa. But the last two years I’ve basically broken even.”

Kotler moved a remarkable 20,000 copies of Sheehan’s books into stores that first week, which was fantastic except that 17,000 of them ended up coming back. He found more success with On That Day, Everybody Ate, which tells the story of author Margaret Trost’s journey to Haiti and has so far sold a respectable 15,000 copies.

“I’m personally convinced the physical book is not going away,” Kotler said. “Sales of paperback and hard-cover books are lower, and ebooks are rising, but I think there will be a place for the physical form. I mean, some people still write letters. A book is just something different.”
Assuming people keep reading in the first place. Apple’s Steve Jobs famously sneered back in 2008 that “people don’t read anymore,” which though clearly overstated, is rooted in some painful statistics.

According to data compiled by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), 46.7 percent of Americans said they’d read a work of literature in 2002; 54 percent had done so in 1992; and 56.9 percent had read at least one such book in 1982. Reports Crain in 2007: “In ‘To Read or Not to Read,’ the N.E.A. reports that American household’s spending on books, adjusted for inflation, is ‘near its twenty-year low,’ even as the average price of a new book has increased.”

Stats and doom-prophecy concerning reading actually pre-date the Internet. “According to the Gallup Poll, the number of Americans who admitted to having read no books during the past year–and this is not an easy thing to admit to a pollster–doubled from 1978 to 1990, from 8% to 16%,” journalism professor Mitchell Stephens wrote in his 1991 Los Angeles Times Magazine story “The Death of Reading.”

Stephens’ article, written at a time when book publishing, book sales and public library use were all increasing, is a sobering thing to read today. “We are developing a generation that has no interest in reading except insofar as it is assigned in school,” Stephens quotes Caltech humanities Professor Daniel Kevles. “They don’t read newspapers or magazines. I sense a general lack of interest in public affairs among my students.”

The reason, according to Stephens, lay largely with the passive television, which requires little from viewers’ minds. And all those books that publishers were printing? “They have begun replacing the bottle of Scotch or the tie as gifts–giving them about the same chance of being opened as those ties had of being worn,” Stephens wrote.

Depressing conclusions to be sure, but are readers on Maui–and in the U.S. as a whole–doomed? State Librarian Burns doesn’t think so.

“All indications are that people are reading more than ever before, and in a greater variety of formats,” Burns emailed. “Circulation for the Hawaii State Public Library System in 2009, the year immediately prior to furloughs, was the highest it has been in a decade. People are also using their libraries for more purposes: our ebook circulation is the fastest growing segment among our collections, usage of our online databases continues to increase and visits to our website are climbing. We have placed new computers in all our libraries, and for the first time each branch has at least one ADA-compliant workstation, including furniture, hardware and software, peripherals and JAWS and Zoom Text assistive software. Our internet computers, which can be reserved a week in advance, are in constant use, with lines of people waiting at many libraries.”

There are also indications that small, independent bookstores (around 2,500 square feet) like the Maui Friends of the Library shop at the Wharf may, in fact, be the wave of the future. This is because, according to Austen’s Bloomberg Businessweek report, many people “simply like the experience of going to a bookstore.”

“It’s the only retail industry I can think of that will go full circle, back to the way it originally was,” Austen quotes retail consultant Jeff Green as saying. “From the small village bookstore to the big-box retailer and then back again. That doesn’t ever happen in retail.”