Is the physical book dead?

The year is 1440. The Country is Germany. A revolution is about to take place that will change the course of history. Johannes Gutenberg, a goldsmith, familiar with the wooden press, invents metal movable type. Using oil-based ink, he sets the type and begins printing page after page at a speed previously unknown.

For centuries, scribes, many working in monasteries, had painstakingly lettered and illustrated books. Now books could be printed using a transformative technology, the written word suddenly liberated and soon disseminated across Europe, creating a fulcrum for the Renaissance, the Reformation, and the Scientific Revolution. Books — unique, once esoteric — soon became commonplace.

Did the people of the 15th century fully comprehend that they were living in a world-changing period? Likely not. Yet, books were everywhere, shifting perspectives, providing springboards for debate. Soon gifted storytellers created written narratives, spun from the strands of their imaginations.

It was almost magical: ink on paper, uniform letters, copies bound, each possessing a feel and a texture that was and still is remarkable.

Today we are living through a similar period, with technology making another quantum leap forward via computers, e-readers, multi-function iPads and smart phones.

E-readers, like the Gutenberg press, represent a game changer for the world of information. Countless e-books, newspapers, magazines can be stored on one wafer thin platform, easily carried, the screens lighted, avoiding glare. By January of 2011, e-book sales at Amazon had surpassed its paperback book sales.

At first blush the e-reader seems irresistible, ideal for the e-generation.

Yet, how do I understand the sales in my store racing ahead, up 15.1 percent the first year and thus far 17.6 percent for the second year? It seems counterintuitive, and yet there it is.

Clearly, there are other factors involved, often obscured by the ongoing tsunami of technology. People still love books — their tactile feel, their synergistic qualities, their marvelous illustrations (vibrant color, woodcuts, steel engravings).

In March of 2009, I opened Shakespeare Books and Antiques, my own niche bookstore on East Main Street. I have watched people walk through the front door in ever increasing numbers, the antique brass bell signaling their arrival. They often stop and take a deep breath, feeling welcomed by the familiar redolence of thousands of books, some bound in aging leather: classics, art, photography, New York Times best sellers, children's books, and those deemed rare and collectible.

I have noticed that there remains, for both young and old, an affection for books. Books — so unique and wondrous — are embedded in our life's experience, a love cultivated over 600 years.

It's a relationship not dissimilar from old friends. I watch in wonder as people browse, touch the spines, and lift them off the shelves. Many pause to read a paragraph, others sit down in a comfortable antique chair, suddenly lost in another's words. It's remarkable. Is it hyperbole to say that I believe that books are organic, seemingly alive, most especially for children, their connection electric, as if a light has been switched on?

And then there are the collectors, those bibliophiles who cherish books as if they were precious antiques or gems. According to the combined value of their top 10 sales thus far in 2011 is $98,000, including a signed First Edition of "A Farewell to Arms" that sold for $11,000. The collectors intently study an array of esoteric information, examine a book's condition and it's date of printing. Is it a true first edition? Has the dust jacket been price clipped?

People have walked through the door and spotting my large collection of "Oz" books or "Big Little Books" instantly smile, remembering a childhood long gone. They pick up a book, marveling at its stunning illustrations, the vibrant colors, the familiar characters.

What I've concluded over the years is that books are not simply books. They are not just black words in homogeneous type on white paper. They represent a collective memory, a golden thread leading back to childhood, to those moments when we were first read to, and later when we sat in silence and read by ourselves, when our imaginations were captured, only grudgingly released.

I know this is subjective. And I understand that there are strong currents at work, taking a few readers away from small niche stores like mine. But there are also intangibles in play that I believe will keep young and old readers walking through my door each day, the bell ringing, reminding me that books exert a gravitational pull like nothing else. Gutenberg lives.

Judi Honoré of Ashland is the owner of Shakespeare Books and Antiques.

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