The Seattle Antiquarian Book Fair takes place this month (October 9–10; seattlebookfair.com), enticing local book lovers with the promise of fragrant and crumbly yellowed pages, and at the same time prompting the question: Aren’t all ink-and-paper books becoming a bit antiquarian? In an interview with Newsweek last December, Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos praised the physical book (and its 500-year run) as “probably the most successful technology ever.” But, he added, “No technology, not even one as elegant as the book, lasts forever.” Amazon tidily backed up his assertion in July with the news that the company is now selling more Kindle books than hardcover books—and Bezos expects Kindle sales to surpass paperback sales within the next year. Are we headed toward a future in which the phrase “rare book” is redundant?
A PRINT ODYSSEY
Love the feel of a book in your hand, but looking for a title that’s only available digitally? Meet “Homer,” the University Book Store’s Espresso Book Machine—a print-on-demand device (from New York’s On Demand Books) that, thanks in part to Google Books Library Project, the massive book-digitization initiative, has the power to bring out-of-print books back into print. “It allows people to explore their eccentric interests,” says Homer’s handler, Tera Kelley, regarding the millions of backlisted and public domain titles available. Books are printed in black and white and bound with a color cardstock cover—before your very eyes—in seven to 60 minutes. And just as Kindle developers race to perfect a color display, Homer’s makers are working to upgrade to color pages. Espresso Book Machines are also on staff at Third Place Books in Lake Forest Park and Village Books in Bellingham.
It would seem only appropriate to check in with alleged Kindle assassin Summer Robinson. In August, the Seattle Weekly deemed Robinson’s store, Pilot Books (pilotbooksseattle.com), our city’s “Best Kindle Killer.” The itty-bitty rec room of a bookstore on Broadway, which the 26-year-old Robinson opened in June 2009, sells a deliciously quirky range of independent and small-press literature—zines, poetry chapbooks, letterpress journals—most of which doesn’t have the mainstream appeal (or print run) to be picked up by larger booksellers, much less be available in Kindle form. “I love letterpress, offset printing, handmade paper, sewn, stapled books,” Robinson says, but insists, “I’m not actually anti-Kindle.” She explains, “If people want to get the latest Dan Brown on Kindle, more power to ’em.” Robinson believes as readers purchase more best-sellers and mainstream-press paperbacks in e-book form, the big-box bookstores are more likely to run into trouble than niche stores like Pilot. “I look at the book as art object,” says Robinson. “It’ll take another generation or two before people no longer consider printed books normal—then they’ll become sacred, as they already are for some today.”
Bonnie Thompson Norman, who has been making books for three decades, agrees. “I don’t see any diminishing in people’s interest in cherishing books as objects,” she says. “That hasn’t changed in all these years.” A hand bookbinder for Kent-based Puget Bindery by day, Norman, 60, also teaches bookbinding and letterpress classes through the University of Washington Experimental College and at The Windowpane Press (thewindowpanepress.com), her Wedgwood home studio, which has several printing presses and a bindery on site. She’s a prominent part of Seattle’s thriving “book as art object” contingent, which augments the simple joy of holding a book by paying as much attention to the presentation as the story within.
Scan the popular Seattle Center for Book Arts (seattlebookarts.org) offerings and, in addition to basic bookbinding, on any given day you might find classes in making pop-up books, accordion books, letterpress techniques and how to artfully alter existing books into your own. Such handcrafted books may gain greater appeal for a wider audience (think of the knitting, canning and urban gardening trends) if mainstream presses really do give up the expensive business of printing mass quantities in favor of digital downloads and a predominance of e-readers.
Bruce Rutledge, cofounder of Seattle’s Chin Music Press (chinmusicpress.com)—a small press known for printing just a few so-called “literary objects” per year, with stunning attention to detail—says he believes the e-book experience is going to become richer in the near future. But meanwhile, he’s aiming to address the “slapdash” style of most printed books. “I think publishers have panicked in the face of e-books and lowered their standards when it comes to print books. But some of us have taken the opposite road, seeing an opportunity to make beautiful books,” he says. “We’re the farmers’ market; the cheap, quickly produced book is Walmart.” And while it’s hard for farmers’ markets to beat Walmart prices, Chin Music insists on making gorgeous literary objects that most people can afford (in the $15–$20 range). “Despite the cheap price of e-books, people with fixed incomes are not going to be walking around with Kindles or iPads anytime soon,” Rutledge notes.
Norman believes such beautiful, handcrafted books will coexist with Kindles. “One is not to the exclusion of the other,” she says. Looking to the recorded-music industry, it would seem she’s right. Countless fans download music immediately online. But there’s also a strong vinyl contingent whose members prefer to sift through bins at funky record shops, admiring cover art and liner notes until they chance upon the LP that sings to them. We may not have reached the same point of nostalgia for books quite yet, but if and when we do, Robinson believes “it makes more sense for something like Pilot Books to exist than Barnes & Noble.”