A recent news headline in The Bookseller caught my eye: ‘Bookshops staffed with robots to open in Beijing’. With a heavy heart, I clicked the article and read about the 20 bookstores being opened by China’s largest bookselling franchise, Xinhua. Each will be open twenty-four hours, and accessible, via facial recognition security scanning, to anyone who registers through the social media platform WeChat. Each store will have no staff, only robots.
Staffless convenience stores and supermarkets are becoming increasingly prevalent in Beijing, with thousands offering twenty-four-hour access, but this is a new departure into bookselling. The benefit for the customer is access to new reading material at any time. The downside? Well, that is the part that worries me.
When you go out to browse and perhaps buy a book, does it matter whether a human being – a bookseller – is on hand to answer any questions you may have; or can a robot fulfil the role equally well? Does it matter whether you go to a store at a time when other people are shopping too, and there is a feeling of coming together in the pursuit of new reading material; or is it fine to pick out books at three a.m., most likely on your own in the space?
It does matter, I think. Bookstores are heaven on earth for people like me who love to read, and that is not only the case because in the store one is surrounded by books; one is also surrounded by fellow bibliophiles, people who love books too. Put simply, in a bookstore you ‘find your tribe’.
When I picture myself being scanned into a bookstore with no staff and perhaps few other customers, I feel lonely, isolated, a little lost. Compare that to how I feel in my local independent bookstore, where the owner knows me by name and always takes the time to chat about the book I’m purchasing, to recommend others I may enjoy – to make a meaningful connection.
Reading is not only about sitting alone curled up in a chair, a book in your lap and a head full of wonderful imagery; reading is also about being part of a community. Book clubs, Goodreads, author talks, library groups – all these things celebrate and foster that sense of community; but at the most basic level, simply purchasing a book from a person who knows books and loves books can make an impact, can give on a sense of companionship and belonging.
When I read this article about the staffless bookstores, my mind turned at once to the fate of libraries. Twenty years ago, I loved to visit the library. As Virginia Woolf put it so well: ‘I ransack public libraries, and find them full of sunk treasure.’ Then, I would return and check out my books at a big central desk, behind which worked several staff members who were immensely knowledgeable about books; whatever question you could ask, they would answer from their own knowledge or their research. A trip to the library always meant an interaction with staff members, whom I always thought of as Guardians of the Knowledge.
I still love to visit the library, but I feel sad these days when it comes time to return books or check them out, because in order to do so I must use a machine (which, incidentally, invariably malfunctions). Books are so soulful. Machines are not. The Guardians have been replaced by staff who are not trained in Library Science and who answer questions by typing them into a computer.
I didn’t realise how much I appreciated the human interaction in a library until it was gone. I wonder: will we readers feel the same way if someday soon there are no people behind the counter in bookstores, only machines?