Suzanne Fields

We're going to seduce them with our square footage, and our discounts, and our deep armchairs, and our cappuccino. They're going hate us at the beginning. ... But we'll get 'em in the end because we're going to sell them cheap books and legal addictive stimulants. We'll just put up a big sign: "Coming soon: a FoxBooks superstore and the end of civilization as you know it.

Such were the sentiments of the 1998 movie comedy "You've Got Mail," spoken by Joe Fox (portrayed by Tom Hanks) articulating the strategy of a big chain bookstore. FoxBooks was a fictional representation of Barnes and Noble, the biggest of the big book chains, which at last count had 720 big stores and 637 college bookstores. The movie was made in 1998 after the super chains had been on the move for more than a decade, bulldozers scooping up every small independent bookstore in their path.

Many of us lament the loss of the neighborhood bookstore, where we enjoyed engaging the owner in conversation, but losing that was a small price (if not so small for the bookshop proprietor) to pay for the luxury of more impersonal service for less money. We still inhabited the Age of Gutenberg, where the printed word on paper was dear to both head and heart, and where we could buy the morning newspaper and a magazine. Soon we carried our laptops into their coffee cafes, too.

Now, Barnes and Noble is up for sale and Amazon.com is seducing us with the Kindle (without coffee), and we have to wait at least two weeks if we want to buy an Apple iPad, with free or cheap "apps" to deliver just about everything but the cappuccino.

I spent a few summer days at the beach reading books on a borrowed Kindle. I had to be dragged to the small screen -- but when I visited an urban bookstore a few days later to browse, I discovered that I preferred the novels as e-books, to read them at half the price of paper-and-ink books. I could easily change the size of the type, and the package was smaller and lighter than any novel I could carry in a shopping bag.

While the technology required mentoring from a 14-year-old, I imagined that I was staying in touch with the future. I waxed nostalgic over a memory of my mother telling me how as a young girl in a small town in Canada, hers was the first family to get a telephone. When her daddy called, she puzzled over how he could make himself tiny enough to fit into the phone box on the wall.

I never thought the generation gap in my lifetime would be that dramatic, but the generation after mine makes it clear that help is required for old folks challenged by electronics.


Suzanne Fields

Suzanne Fields is currently working on a book that will revisit John Milton's 'Paradise Lost.'

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