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Bookstores fill a niche, even in a digital world

Tonight bibliophiles will gather at 6 p.m. at Octavia Books for a reading of winning pieces in NolaVie’s first Creative Writing Contest. It will be a gathering of disparate ages and interests and backgrounds, but the people there (and we hope you will be among them) share at least one thing in common: Appreciation of and love for the written word.

And that, believes Octavia owner Tom Lowenburg, is why small, independent bookstores are here to stay – despite digital libraries in the sky and big-box stores and e-readers.

“If you think a book is merely a commodity, then you can get it online,” Lowenburg says. “But most people understand the difference in what we provide. Books have a little bit of soul.”

New Orleans always has been a city of readers and writers. Anyone who has been to the Tennessee Williams or Faulkner fests knows that.

“We have a lot of illiteracy here, let’s not fool ourselves,” Lowenburg says. “But there are real readers here, and they are pretty sophisticated in the breadth of what they read. New Orleans readers are omnivores, totally.”

Ours also is a city of small businesses, where proprietors interact with clients one on one. That is especially true in independent bookstores.

“We’re like curators, interpreting the language of books,” Lowenburg says. “It’s a serendipitous experience. You don’t get that browsing online.”

How volumes are arranged, what titles are displayed, even the meandering L-shape of Octavia’s floor plan all combine to make book browsing a tactile and engaging experience, Lowenburg explains.

“People come in for one thing and leave with others. Just the act of walking into a bookstore is a voyage of discovery.”

Perhaps most importantly, independent bookstores are all about community. They are environments of discourse, where personnel engage readily in literary conversation and advice. The books are hand-chosen, with the local clientele in mind. Octavia has access to 2 million or so titles, and keeps maybe 15 or 20 thousand on hand at any given time.

“It’s a dynamic thing,” Lowenburg says of what he stocks. “We pick our books out one at a time. And we don’t have to have 10 copies of every title.”

There’s a social aspect, too: Bookstores are places where people are encouraged to converse, drink coffee, linger. “There’s something about the human contact and warmth around books that’s important.”

Independent bookstores play a role in preserving literary choices, too, Lowenburg believes. Non-mainstream books such as, say, “Water for Elephants” might not survive in an online world, where the emphasis is more on bestsellers and popularity. “Do you want to have control what books you can buy?” Lowenburg asks rhetorically.

While he abhors the idea of an all-digital book world, Lowenburg, like other independent bookstore owners, has been quick to take advantage of the Internet and technology. Octavia sells ebooks on its website, a part of the business that got a big boost in December, when Google introduced ebooks that are not tied to any particular electronic device.

“All you need is a gmail account,” says Lowenburg. “You can start reading a book on your Droid and then go home and open it on your computer.”

Nowadays, small bookstores are becoming a hybrid of on-location browsing and digital choices. And they can adapt perhaps better to changing ways than the big chains have been able to do.

“The shine is off the big-box bookstores — they went from childhood to geriatric very quickly,” Lowenburg says. Independent bookstores weathered that short ride with mixed results. At about the time that Borders opened Uptown, several small bookstores in the area closed, including Beaucoup Books and DeVille. Now, Borders has filed for bankruptcy, and its stores here are closing.

Lowenburg, however, isn’t worried about the future of bookstores, whatever their size.

Books, he points out, aren’t as easily digitalized as, say, music. There’s a tactile experience involved, and some books don’t translate well to the virtual world.

“I have books a hundred years old that I can still read. You just don’t prize an ebook in the same way. I don’t ever envision a world without books. Not if I can help it.”


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