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Editorial: Book Keepers

Don’t Stop the Presses

Three cheers for the beleaguered book, which staged a triumphant show Saturday before a large crowd eager to browse, buy, scan, trade, hold and behold objects Gutenberg himself would have recognized. If digital books are ascendant, many of the 1,600 people who attended the Five-Colleges Book Sale in Lebanon on Saturday either didn’t get the memo or didn’t seem to care. “Books are books,” said Phyllis Fox of Hanover. “There’s nothing like a book.” Amen.

Of course, we of the print persuasion already have religion and naturally prefer bound paper to e-book imitations. We’re just delighted to learn that we aren’t alone. As staff writer Maggie Cassidy reported Sunday, the venerable book sale — which raises scholarship money for college students from New Hampshire and Vermont who attend Mount Holyoke, Simmons, Smith, Vassar and Wellesley — had a banner day on Saturday, drawing more people on its first day than ever before in its 52-year history. The attendance record suggests that, even if old-fashioned books aren’t resurgent, there’s at least a continuing interest in them and an appreciation for what they have to offer that digital upstarts don’t. “We keep thinking everybody’s got an iPod or whatever, or they’re reading on something else. But clearly they’re not,” said Sylvia Nelson, who was busy stocking tables with donated books that she and a small army of volunteers had sorted and categorized for the sale.

While many have predicted their demise, we remain hopeful that printed books can and will endure. Dealers and independent booksellers were among those scouring the titles on Saturday. They’re banking on the fact that readers will continue to value physical books. Many people, after all, still enjoy picking up a book, leafing through its pages and letting their eyes fall on passages that may spark a curious interest. And who hasn’t judged a book by its cover? Digital books, for all their marvels, don’t offer the same pleasure or serendipity.

As National Public Radio reported last November, independent bookstores, which for decades fought an uphill battle against national retail chains and Web retailers such as Amazon, are actually faring better than in previous years. The American Booksellers Association, which represents independently owned bookstores, had nearly 2,000 members last year, up 20 percent since 2009, and overall sales are rising. Ironically, the closing of Borders and some Barnes & Noble outlets may have helped some small booksellers, as did technology that makes it easier to manage inventories and payrolls. The buy-local movement, strong throughout Vermont and some other states, has also been a factor in boosting independent bookstores. Vermont, in fact, with 36 independent bookstores and two national book retailers, ranked No. 3 among states in bookstores per capita in 2012, according to Publishers Weekly.

As gratifying as the trend may be, however, the number of independent bookstores was once much higher than it is today and many bookstores, both large and small, are struggling to survive. Across the country, more than 1,600 have closed since 2000. The Upper Valley has seen its share of changes, with the closing of Borders in West Lebanon, for example, and other bookshops. Thankfully, there are still some independent bookstores around, as well as the annual Five-Colleges Book Sale, a book-lovers tradition that shows no signs of fading.