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Is browsing a dying art?


Pianist and author Charles Rosen, now in his 80s, praises browsing in bookstores at the New York Review of Books blog:

I almost never want to buy a book until I have held it in my hands and riffled through the pages. ... When I was a teenager, I used to spend a lot of time on 4th Avenue in New York, where there were more than a dozen secondhand stores, all of which have now gone. I spent all my pocket money there, and my browsing is responsible for most of my literary education. On nearby Broadway, there is still the Strand, of course, but also in the neighborhood, the great shop of Dauber and Pine on 5th Avenue and 12th Street was long ago taken over by the New School for Social Research. Mr. Dauber and Mr. Pine hated each other and never spoke, one staying on the ground floor, the other reigning in the basement. They bought up scholarly libraries and sold the books at very reasonable terms. Most of what I know about literature from 1500 to 1700 is due to them.

Rosen celebrates the joy of hand-held intrigue and serendipitous discovery. And while there are no longer the used bookstores he remembers in New York, and Acres of Books in Long Beach is gone, there are still bookstores in which we can browse, stop and riffle through pages. It's one of the best things about large chain bookstores -- lots of books.

But as he notes, the success of online booksellers indicates that getting our hands on a book really isn't necessary anymore. We buy online using different criteria -- cover design, publishers' blurbs, four stars from James in Minneapolis.

Does this mean we've lost our need for the physical encounter with a book? Like a child saying "let me see" and extending an open hand, touching a book seemed to carry with it a kind of knowledge. Holding the thing meant knowing the thing. Having a personal, chance encounter made it yours -- say, your eyes caught on the line "This morning I go to the Big Slot and find it goatless," and you thought with a start, Wait, slot? Goat? for just a moment before deciding you must read on to know what, exactly, this George Saunders person was up to.

Seeing with our eyes and our hands, having our own individual interaction with a book's pages, used to be important components of making a decision about what we wanted to read or buy. But maybe we don't need to let our fingers do the stumbling anymore. Perhaps the only kind of browsing we need comes from Explorer, Firefox, Safari or Google Chrome.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: Barnes & Noble, Union Square, New York City. Credit: eflon via Flickr

Comments () | Archives (24)

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It's hard to imagine the need to physically browse dying completely, but many of us browse online because we can or because we have to. Perhaps we'll see a resurgence of the used books store somewhere down the road. (We can only hope!)

Oh, I pray the art of book browsing never dies. That'd be like the end of free samples at Whole Foods because, hey, people will buy what they know they want. I shudder to think.

There's a childlike joy that comes from searching and finding a book on the shelves, holding it close, smelling the glue, fingering the paper, and knowing that with a twenty spot, it could be yours... forever. No battery life. No Wi-Fi. No worries that if you spill coffee on it, you could loose your entire library memory. It is yours. You can write your name on the inside cover. You can highlight and underline and dog-ear and wear the cover soft from holding. You can wrap it up with a bow and give it to your friend, your mother, your daughter, your granddaughter. You can't do that with Google or Safari or e-books.

Long live the paper-n-string book! And God bless all the bookstores who open their doors daily and say, "Come on in, pick up a book."



I am always browsing new and second-hand bookshops when I get a chance, and there are just as many people in them as ever.

Online shopping is great for buying a book that you're specifically looking for, or something that may be hard to find.

I don't think online bookshops could ever replace the feeling of picking up a book, smelling it, flipping through it. Maybe my adoration bookshops (especially second-hand ones) has blinded me to reality, but I refuse to believe online is the only thing on the horizon for book buying.

I've been attracted to books with no knowledge of the subject matter or author, simply be the grooves of an embossing, or exposed signatures. It's a kind of marketing technique, really, making the book available to touch.

There is something nice about browsing through 'other things you might like' or 'people who like this also like this' features, accidentally coming across something like this in kindle or an iphone app.

But it's a new kind of browsing, it relies much more on the public. Very different from the very private experience of running a finger across the edge of paper of a certain weight, and falling in love with it.

It is still possible to browse in online book stores using the "look inside" features. I do spend more time shopping online for books and much less time in "bricks and mortar" bookstores but I spend more time now book browsing then I ever did before.

I sympathize with Mr. Rosen and too continue to enjoy the art of browsing. My own NYC haunts were the Strand on Broadway and B&N, which in the day was a discount outlet on lower 5th Avenue and a mecca for discounted trade paperbacks - as was the Strand. These days I find my browsing itch tickled by libraries - the bigger and more established the better.

Yet the Internet (in particular Amazon and especially Google Books) greatly expands the reach of the book browser. Having out of print titles both searchable and accessible by the click is qualitatively different than the old experience. As a researcher I have benefitted from access to out-of-print titles with very limited appeal, and the experience suggests to me the distinction between browsing as art and access as tool.

What I truly treasure is my experience in the old world of texts. When I browse online, that content is liberated from its traditional, cloth-covered carrier. Yet I carry with me the experience of the Strand or B&N. When I use the powerful Google Books to access content online, I recall the feeling of the stacks, as in my university library, where I've felt liberated in time and at peace with the accumulated knowledge there. That's a feeling that our younger content consumers probably don't have, however extensive their access to information online. By their lack of interest in visiting the stacks, though, I surmise that they relate to content in a totally different way, for good and for bad no doubt.

I love to browse especially at independent bookstores. The problem is that the price of books is getting so high that I jot down the titles and often buy them on Amazon. That's especially true for hardbacks. My husband has a Kindle now but I can't imagine not holding a book in my hand. Funny because I'm happy to read newspapers on line and he must have one to hold. Different strokes!

I will move to Portland just to browse at Powell's if browsing is ended everywhere else.

Our local library has a used book store and the only way to find something you are interested in is to browse the shelves. Every Saturday that I am there it is filled with people finding books they never even knew they needed or wanted. It is a wonderful place.

Books? What books? Facebook?

Books are wonderful treasures on so many levels. Browsing them in an actual store has always been special. And I think of libraries as sacred places. But I'm also grateful for the on-line experience. It's made so much information available and has added to the experience of reading.

I found myself thinking like that for a while in my youth (…knowing that with a twenty spot, it could be yours... Forever). Yes, many, many books are disposed of during the current owner’s lifetime  sold, given away, donated, etc. A used book store’s largest purchases however, all come from estate sales. In other words, they’re buying dead men’s books. And those books, in another turn, once belonged to other men, even longer dead.
My two favorite book stores in the LA area were Dawson Brothers on 9th Street and Acres of Books in Long Beach. When I worked downtown, I’d go to Dawson’s every day at lunch time. I didn’t have much of a budget for books and would usually buy something from the ‘bargain table’ outside in the entrance way. Even though I spent relatively little money there, Dawson’s sold to wealthy collectors around the world, the staff did get to know me and were always happy to chat a bit. Dawson’s had a reputation and gravity in the business that they attracted professors from USC to work there part-time as bookstore clerks. One of them pointed out to me one day that they had been in business long enough to have sold to some of their customers, the bulk of the customer’s entire library and at his death, had bought it all back from his estate. Such is the way of the quality bound, hard covered, jacketed book.

I never have seen an article on ‘browsing in a used bookstore’ and if I ever thought about it, never thought I would. Buying used books, for me, got to be a ‘sickness’. I always spent way too much money that I didn’t have on books  new, used, from book stores, thrift shops, garage sales, estate sales library sales, friends of the library sales, etc., wherever books were sold. Also, for me, even the browsing I’d class as a ‘sickness’. I spent many a Saturday from 9am till I’d finally hear a little bell tinkling the signal that the store was closing, browsing the stacks, unaware of time, tiredness, hunger, etc. Sounds like a sickness.
The author of the article left out a very important aspect of browsing, at least in my methodology of browsing. This you can’t do on-line because of on-line pricing. On-line pricing is so completely ballparkish because it’s so easy for one seller to check other’s prices. Anyway, when browsing, I’d always find more books that I wanted than I could afford. So I’d have stacks or a box of everything I thought I wanted. And when it came time to leave, eventually I had my kids along with me and that meant no 9-5 browsing. I’d look again at everything I’d selected and only keep the ones I really, really wanted. However, this process did have a short-circuit component and that was, if I found a book that I thought was a real treasure or super bargain, I wouldn’t do the normal final scrutiny and I’d buy all the books I’d collected in that browse. That little phenomenon, if it happened, would usually happen at Acres of Books. Because Acres had so many books, most of them had never been looked at again a second time by the staff once the book had been originally priced and put on the shelf. This was primarily true while Mr. Bertrand Smith himself was still alive and managing the store. That changed when his heirs took over. But this meant that many books had been priced 20 years before and had been on the shelf all low those many years with no updated pricing. So talk about being ecstatic about ‘serendipitous discovery’, for me that was IT!
You can’t get this with on-line browsing and buying. Yes, on-line, you can still find a ‘treasure’ for reasons such as content, quality, edition, nostalgia, etc. But, chances are, you’re going to pay for it. And that’s OK too. But let me stand in the isles till closing time any day.

Every time a bookstore closes, a little bit of me dies. I remember the various bookstores around UCLA--Hunter's, Papa Bach, and Vagabond. I was happy to hear this week that Book Soup was bought by Vroman's--and a bit annoyed by the churlish reaction of customers who decried the loss of "independence." It's not like it was bought by Barnes & Noble, and given that the probable alternative to Vroman's was liquidation, quite a bit short-sighted.

Discovering a new bookstore is like discovering a new world. Upon entering you have no idea what are the owner's interests, so it becomes an adventure. My favorite used bookstores are Brand Bookstore in Glendale and Book Alley in Pasadena. Brand has a huge selection of used books and add to their holdings daily. You will never guess what will appear in their display windows--it's always something different. Book Alley looks like my library--piles and piles of books on the floor.

Speaking for people of my age (I'm 23), most don't feel the need to browse. Most people my age I know, don't pick up books period! It pains me to see this. You see, books were always my sort of security blanket. I never leave home without a book. Once when I was 13, I rode public transportation to get to Acres of Books in Long Beach and literally hours just browsing, scouring the shelves and piles to my heart's content.

Browsing is indeed a dying art. It is one I hope truly never dies. So bring on the secondhand bookstores and dig for treasure through piles of books. Get lost in the act of finding a GOOD book. You never know when you'll find your next favorite book!

Sure I love browsing in used bookstores like Book Alley in Pasadena, rummage sales and garage sales, and will continue stumbling onto great books and ephemera that way. Online searches are another adventure that get me into the content though a googled phrase or a blog mention. And after dozens of futile visits to used book stores in the 80s looking for a copy of Edmund Snow's "Oh what a blow that phantom gave me" I rejoiced at being linked to a hundred sellers online with copies of varying price and condition to choose from.

I browse in the library all the time. One doesn't really "browse" online; one searches. It's the difference between making out a purchase order and spneding a liesurely afternoon shopping.

While truly browsing, in the stacks, not knowing what I want that day, I find new authors, new subjects, even unexpected work by old favorite writers.

I go online when I'm looking to buy (or call in to my local library) a specific tome. I browse in real life when I want life to surprise and expand me.

It's dying in my town. R.I.P. Acres of Books.

Browsing used bookstores is a favorite of mine. There are a few good ones in Pasadena, such as the Cookbook store on Washington. Glendale's Brand Bookshop is one of the best in the area, and Bookfellows across the street is also a great mystery-sci fi focused store. I'm sad that I never had the chance to go to Acres of Books in LBC.

Here in the Sierras between Jackson and Arnold there are some awesome old used book stores that are hard to resist. Not sure if its the historical buildings they are in or the smell, and interaction with wonderful patrons. Often there is the bookstore cat, and the owner who reminds me of Miss Marple. Literally.

And being a serious bibliophile I can usually find the old books I am looking for. And I like buying locally. And I agree with those that there is something wonderful about picking up a book and reading a few pages or even a chapter. Feeling how the book feels in your hands. We have and always will have a healthy size home library. A wall of bookshelves is art to me.

I work in 2 independent bookstores and nothing is more infuriating than
people who ruin our books by "browsing" and then write down the titles only to go buy them on Amazon. That is the epitome of selfishness! Every time someone riffles through a book it reduces the value of it. Many books don't get sold because they look a little "used", even though they are new books. People want a pristine edition but many aren't careful at all when looking through a book.

Both bookstores I work at are barely hanging on by a thread, and they once did very well. I beseech you all to make your purchases at a real bookstore so it will stay in business. Don't "use" us for your Amazon habit.

The only reason Amazon can charge cheaper prices is because they charge the booksellers outrageous fees to sell on Amazon. Bookstores can't compete, of course. Please keep the pleasure of bookstores alive.

Bruce, I already have! Powell's is indeed reason enough to move to Portland. But then there's also the food carts, the beers and wines, Timberline Lodge on Mt. Hood (not the tallest, but the most beautiful peak in America), the waterfalls in Columbia Gorge, the beaches, the air, the clouds, the cheeses! But you're right: Powell's alone tips the scales.

Douglas Scott

I love book stores. I love to hang out there. In fact I've found many books and book series that I've really come to enjoy. And those real live stores are the same places that I've expanded my love of comics. I bought multiple books as a direct result of "browsing." It's something about physically seeing and touching the book just as the articles author said. It's also that some times it's nice to discover a new book via browsing, and when I do that I really feel an obligation to buy from the store. I only use amazon to buy stuff that I can't find in a store or when I need a very specific book.

Oh the excitement! Browsing! Not knowing what you may find. It´s like gifts under the christmas tree. Except you don´t have to wait all year. Holding the books, smelling them, appreaciate the fine finding. That will never go out of style.


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