Friday, March 28, 2008

Should Bookstores be Socially Responsible?

We have a habit of hanging out at bookstores. We’ve had this habit since way before we had kids. In several of the towns where I’ve lived, the local libraries weren’t much to write home about. Besides being terribly under stocked and in the “wrong” area of town, they also had lousy hours and didn’t feel conducive to hanging around being semi-social. So, we got in the habit of frequenting large chain bookstores.

This isn’t anything original to us. Many people are turning bookstores into their own little living rooms. They go, have coffee, a muffin, read the day’s paper, talk on the phone, whatever. In college I often chose to study at Borders instead of the college library because it was closer to my house and it felt like I was out doing something. These places are semi-public spaces that are turning more and more into semi-private places.

This habit of ours leaked very comfortably into our lives as parents. Many Barnes & Nobles have train tables to play with, little stages to play on, and several cozy reading nooks for kids to get into. And of course, when we lived in Austin, we spent an inordinate amount of hours at the world’s greatest bookstore, BookPeople, which was so full of fun activities and a wide selection of books that there was rarely a question of what to do when it was just too damn hot outside.

But with the exception of the above mentioned independent bookseller, being at these places has always come with a challenge for us as parents. My daughters—when they tire of playing with the train or dancing on the stage—want me to read books to them. That much is great. But the problem is distinguishing between books and toys.

The basic rule I’ve come down to is this: books have an author listed, toys do not. So much of what is seemingly a book, isn’t a book at all. There are a million Princess books that have no listed author, as there are with Backyardigans, Elmo, Dora, My Little Pony, Hanna Montana, and every other imaginable character. (Now, I have a soft spot for Disney, thanks to well over a hundred trips to Disneyland, but that doesn’t change my stance about their “books”).

Even worse are the books that are actually just toys in a book shaped box. They have buttons, make noises, play songs, or are actually filled with little knick-knacks of every imaginable persuasion. They are a real and true blight on the bookstore. And, they are specifically designed to attract children.

Obviously, I can’t explain to my kids that I don’t want to read books without authors to them. But I do try and explain why I don’t want to read princess book after princess book, or why it’s no fun to hear an electronic beep play “muffin man” a billion times in a row for no particular reason. Usually, while they are involved in the initial distraction of the train, the toys, or whatever, I make a round and pick out several books that I would like to read. Some old favorites, like Suess and Sendak, and some new or seasonally exciting ones. Then, I try and persuade them to look at these books with me, as the stories are so much better than the plight of Pinkie Pie from My Little Pony as she tries to throw a party for Minty.

These toy-books are positioned to be the most reachable. They attract children with familiar characters (many of them at least familiar from the grocery store, Target, and kid’s shirts that they play with). And, of course, I’m sure they sell great. Many parents are like, “Cool, you want a book, we’ll buy it.” Or hapless grandparents who aren’t sure what to buy pick them up based on accessibility. They even have line after line of these books that are supposed to teach the child to read—because the parents would have no idea how to do that without the Elmo puppet’s help that’s attached to many of these.

If you want your children to grow up to be readers, you have to look past the marketing. You have to encourage them to read books that are worth reading. In the long run, they will notice the effects of a good book versus a bad book.

On a recent trip to Borders, their seasonal wall was overcome with a new display of Disney Fairies books—all of which burst onto the market the same day as the Borders-Disney sweepstakes. The other four tables around it—together representing the five most accessible areas of books for kids—had signs attached to them as follows: “At the Movies;” “Hannah Montana;” “Make it a Nickelodeon Night;” and “Your Favorite Characters” (all of which, apparently, can be found on TV).

Should bookstores recognize their position as the new public book space? Should something be done to increase library funding for better hours, more pleasing kids areas, and better lighting? Should they lead buyer for Barnes & Noble—the single most powerful person in publishing—recognize the importance of good literature for every age? Or should we just buckle to our typical post-capitalist apathy of, “Hey, they’re a business, they want to make money, Jackass!”

Businesses run from our money. The libraries run from our money. We should expect more of them, and we should, therefore, expect more of ourselves.


MommyMoments said...

I can understand your stand on books without authors, but there are several good collection books that don't have a specific listed author either... I buy some of those musical books, and definitely Disney books. I figure if it keeps my children interested in reading, at age 2, I don't mind them reading stories about Princesses and Fairies... They have plenty of time to read Shakespeare and Maya Angelou.. and they will...

bryan said...

if people continue to buy that crap, why should the corporation take our kids in to account? their job, in a capitalist society, is to make money for their shareholders. our job, in a capitalist society, is to make the best possible decisions for our families and shield them from crap. but not too much. excessively avoiding their contact with anything tends to do nothing but backfire.

also, while i do think that an entire collection of said crap would be a really bad idea, i don't see the harm in moderation. hell, elmo is teaching bailey to potty. i'd shake his hand if i could.

thanks god for the independents though, not that they are free of that stuff, but at least it seems they are conscious of it.

ellen said...