Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The End is Nigh

Fourteen years ago I was working in a bookstore. I had been a bookseller for several years and I would be a bookseller for several more. Our store was pretty new. Business was good. Our company and its biggest competitors were growing quickly. I thought the future was bleak.

“The end is nigh,” I told my co-workers. “What we think of as the traditional bookstore, a clean and well-lit place that offers a variety of books for sale at prices the average person can afford, is a twentieth century invention. It's had a good run, but it won't survive the coming century.”

I had been to the mountaintop. I had seen the growth of cell phones (I didn't have one yet). I had seen the internet (I had just gotten hooked up myself). “One day,” I predicted, “we will all carry around little electronic tablets. They will have screens that are so much better than the glass tubes we use today that it will be like reading on paper. They will have built-in telephones and internet connections. When we want a book we'll just log onto the bookselling website, transfer the funds to them electronically, download the text, and we'll be reading the book in minutes, anywhere, anytime.” I was a prophet of doom.

This morning I read that competition (oh that dratted free market) has continued to drive down the price and improve the quality of the little electronic tablets. I don't see how my prediction can fail to come true. Eventually the tablets will be all-in-one devices; telephone, music player, notebook computer, portable library, GPS, camera, health monitor, and probably force field, air purifier, and Soylent Green dispenser. What was bad news for music stores and the folks who made film is now bad news for bookstores and the neighborhood Soylent shop.

I sometimes miss working in bookstores, but I'm glad I got out when I did. I'm usually not all that good at predicting the future, but this time it looks like I nailed it.

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