A new independent bookstore in South Park, San Diego!

San Diego’s Literacy Health

Last week, Amazon announced the list of the 20 “Most Well-Read Cities in America” according to their own sales data and however else they decided to gauge things. The list was compiled from “all book, magazine and newspaper sales in both print and Kindle format since Jan. 1, 2011, on a per capita basis in cities with more than 100,000 residents.” (The Christian Science Monitor pointed out that this list is nearly identical to a list compiled by Amazon last year entitled “The 20 Most Romantic Cities in America.” Hilarious.)  Regardless, the town that I live in wasn’t on either list, which got me thinking…

The store formerly known as Borders in downtown San Diego
1. Cambridge, MA
2. Alexandria, VA
3. Berkeley, CA
4. Ann Arbor, MI
5. Boulder, CO
6. Miami
7. Salt Lake City
8. Gainesville, FL
9. Seattle
10. Arlington, Va.
11. Knoxville, TN
12. Orlando
13. Pittsburgh
14. Washington, DC
15. Bellevue, WA
16. Columbia, SC
17. St. Louis
18. Cincinnati
19. Portland, OR
20. Atlanta

According to the Most Literate Cities survey conducted (with a bit less bias, perhaps) by Central Connecticut State University in 2010, San Diego ranked #38 overall (in a tie with Greensboro, NC) and #40 in number of per capita bookstores. (This list focused on the largest cities in America, all with over 250,000 residents.) Granted, we’re not top of the heap here, but San Diego still seems to be a relatively literate and book-friendly town by most standards. For comparisons, CCSU’s overall Top Five cities:

1. Seattle, WA
2. St. Louis, MO
3. Minneapolis, MN
4(tie). Cincinnati, OH
4(tie). Portland, OR

So, since I’m trying to look for a positive spin here, does the omission of San Diego from the Amazon list strangely translate into hope for local independent bookstores? I’m presuming that the data compiled by Amazon was strictly from their own sales, which would cause the list to be an “Amazon top customer” list, rather than one highlighting overall literacy. By that rationale, paired with the findings of the CCSU survey, San Diego seems to be a city open to brick & mortar bookstores. Maybe? The success of the 2 larger independent stores in SD would seem so…

There are not that many indies in San Diego these days – by my count, there are 4 “legit” stores, focusing primarily on books, one of which is planning on closing up this summer – but does the closing of most of the branches of Borders in SD County, coupled with our failure to make the Amazon-friendly list create a literacy vacuum that can be filled by indies? Are San Diegans poised to shop local or am I just being overly hopeful and naive?

The questions about this topic that I’ve been asking myself lately (in an attempt to shake things up, personally, perhaps) are nearly endless: Does SD need more bookstores? Can our city sustain a literary society like a Seattle or Portland or even a Cincinnati? Do we still want to read actual books, or do we prefer to get our content online or in a digital format? I know that the majority of readers of The Book Catapult don’t live in San Diego (oddly, only 14% of pageviews even come from California) and I know that many of you are ebook readers, but I am curious about where people think the book world is heading. On the heels of Book Expo and the Book Bloggers Convention in NYC last week, I don’t get the sense that that giant elephant of a question was fully addressed. Are paper books dead? Do we still want places to go and physically browse stacks of books? Do we want to meet authors in person anymore? Or do we just prefer the ease & anonymity of buying books online? What does the 21st century bookstore look like to you, if it exists at all?

Any thoughts?

4 comments on “San Diego’s Literacy Health

  1. Ike
    June 1, 2011

    My first thought when I saw this was that to wonder whether my town, Somerville, 'counts' as part of Cambridge…

    I'm supremely guilty of buying books online, and I just got a Kindle, which I can't get enough of (mostly for my Instapaper reads), but I have spent many, many dollars in independent bookstores, most of them in SD.

    On the larger question, it seems clear that ebooks will increasingly supplement paper books but will not replace them anytime soon. (defining 'anytime soon' is more difficult – 20 years? 50?)

    But there's always a crucial role for independent booksellers, which goes beyond just the selling of books. Porter Square Books, the nearest independent store to our apt., is a vibrant meeting spot with a coffee shop and many hosted events. We buy stuff there now and again, although their prices do tempt me to be bad and just browse in-store then go to abebooks.

    And what happened to that Borders? Is it a B&N now?

  2. Crybaby
    June 2, 2011

    “Most Well Read” metric is identical to your status as an Amazon shopper. I remember when “well read” meant you sought out books worth reading and understood them.

    On the other hand -I think this means that if I start buying shit at Sears I can fix your car.

  3. Seth Marko
    June 2, 2011

    Ike, that's the thing with indies – they often can't afford to discount like the online retailers do, so are subject to the high prices set by the pubs. Amazon knows this, of course, which is why they sell books right at the margin line (in the neighborhood of 46-53% off the cover price) hoping to corner the market. Which they pretty much have, of course.

    And C-B, I think you nailed the heart of the problem, for me – we no longer measure things like being well-read or educated based on content, conversation, or comprehension, but rather on how many dollars we've spent on a website. Sad shit.

  4. Ike
    June 2, 2011

    Re. the issue of reading books versus 'having books' (or spending money): that's why I love my new Kindle. I haven't spent a dime at the Amazon store, but have read so very much in such a short time, especially relative to reading in other non-paper formats, which allow for myriad distractions…granted, most of what I've read is long-form journalism and blogs I save with Instapaper from the web.

    I think this whole question of cities being best-read is just self-congratulatory silliness…if the list reflects amount spent on books, though, keep in mind the textbook issue, especially for places like Cambridge. As someone who's planning two new courses next semester, I've definitely bought my share of books online (or have wheedled review copies from publishers) – but I generally use Abebooks, not Amazon. And I guarantee you that Porter Square Books doesn't carry “Compassion by the Pound: The Economics of Farm Animal Welfare.” Indeed, they have no reason to do so.

    I can see how all of this would be construed from an indie bookseller perspective. I buy from my local independent store when I can, but I don't read for community or conversation – I read because I like to read. I'll admit that I don't read enough new fiction for it to make sense for me to buy new books primarily from indies, and they don't usually carry the nonfiction that I'm looking for. I tend to go for the $1 used scifi rack. Classy, I know.

    In any case, Cambridge really is well read, but yeah, this is a stupid survey design.

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This entry was posted on June 1, 2011 by in Amazon, http://schemas.google.com/blogger/2008/kind#post.
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