I do most of my shopping online these days, and few categories of products are exempt from this. The only major item I recall purposely buying at a store was an oven, because I wanted to check out various sizes to pick one that would fit in my kitchen.
Over the weekend, I visited a downtown bookstore in Bangalore that stocked a massive collection spanning new, old and used titles. It’s one that I used to frequent while still at college, when I had a stronger reading habit than I do now.
Books line every available inch of shelf space and are stacked up atop each other in precariously tall piles on the floor — leaving customers with a narrow path to carefully navigate in search of their next read.
They aren’t organized sensibly and many books are hard to reach. The store is also split into three floors and doesn’t have an elevator.
By the end of my visit, I had spent more on books in two hours than I had in the past year online.
I have a lot of interests that the internet simply does not know about. Food photography from the 80s, the art of writing screenplays. There aren’t any Facebook pages or algorithms for that kind of thing. However, I found books to satiate both fascinations on neighboring shelves in that bookstore within minutes.
Serendipity isn’t common when you shop on the Web. Online stores are great for buying things you know you want, but they aren’t as much fun to casually browse and discover products. That most human activity, “the browse”, is almost impossible to replicate online. Or at the very least, I have yet to find it.
When you shop online, stores already know what you’ve bought, what you’ve liked on Facebook and which sites you browsed last. They use this data to predict what they think you’ll want to purchase next, but it often doesn’t make sense. I just picked up a frying pan, why would I want another just like it the same week?
As a tech journalist, I tend to try every new app and service that claims to solve problems in my day-to-day life. Unfortunately, that has a side effect of wiping away the memories of the joy in doing things the old-fashioned way.
That trip to the bookstore reminded me why I was a voracious reader growing up, why I loved collecting books and why online stores still have nothing on physical stores when it comes to the sheer delight of finding something that resonates with me.
We’re getting better and better at building technology to bring more convenience to our lives, and I’m all for that. But unless we detach ourselves from our digital umbilical cord every now and again, experiencing the most human of acts — to walk around a space and to be surprised and delighted by what we might find — we’re at risk of losing something we’ll find difficult to get back.