Scientific Bookstores, RIP

A few days ago I tried to stop by the Barnes and Noble store here in New York at Fifth Ave. and 18th St., just to find that it had closed earlier this month. This was the first book store I had access to as a high school student that had a serious collection of math, physics and astronomy books, and I’ve been buying such books there for about 40 years. The huge 18th St. store dates back to 1932, and by the early 1970s was the only Barnes and Noble store, at the time that the company was revived and started its huge expansion.

With the closing of this store, there now are no longer any bookstores that I’m aware of in New York City that have a large collection of technical math and physics books. Other Barnes and Nobles like the Columbia bookstore have a smattering of such books, and the Strand has a large collection of used and remaindered books, but that’s about it (maybe a reader will tell me about a place I don’t know). At one point in a long-ago golden age there were several bookstores here devoted to scientific and technical books, including Book Scientific and the McGraw-Hill book store.

The same phenomenon is taking place around the country. Cody’s in Berkeley is gone, and if there’s a good technical book store in the Bay area now, I don’t know about it (but haven’t spent much time there in quite a while). Among the places in the US I regularly travel, the only bookstore I can think of that still carries quite a few math and physics books is the Harvard Coop (also some at the MIT outpost). Other countries may be doing somewhat better, with several such bookstores surviving in Paris at least (Gibert Joseph and Eyrolles for instance).

Of course the reason for this is the internet, more specifically Amazon and the online Barnes and Noble. These do have their virtues, and allow fairly quick access to a much more vast array of technical books than any physical bookstore ever could. But the loss of the experience of being able to spend an hour or so browsing through books, with the serendipity of finding something unexpected (something that Amazon’s finely tuned algorithms wouldn’t ever present to you) is a very real one.

RIP New York technical bookstores, I must find a way to get to Paris more often…

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56 Responses to Scientific Bookstores, RIP

  1. I am sorry to hear about the NYC Barnes and Noble and the McGraw-Hill Book Store. In London, the main Foyles store still has a decent, though not great, math section.

    About being able to browse serendipitously, I agree that is valuable, and it is infeasible with the current Amazon. This could be argued, though, to be just a weakness in the construction of Amazon’s site. They should have a “serendipitously browse in related books” button. Maybe if enough people suggest it to them, they will add it.

  2. A.J. says:

    Black Oak Books on San Pablo Ave in Berkeley has a pretty good collection of math books.

  3. Zathras says:

    Back in the 90s Borders (and to a somewhat lesser extent Barnes & Noble) had really solid technical sections. Physics and Math sections could have hundreds of technical books. By 2000 these were much less, and by 2005 these were mostly gone, aside from the odd book (Misner Thorne Wheeler always seemed to be in stock). I really miss browsing these.

  4. Zathras says:

    “But the loss of the experience of being able to spend an hour or so browsing through books, with the serendipity of finding something unexpected (something that Amazon’s finely tuned algorithms wouldn’t ever present to you) is a very real one.”

    In artificial intelligence the distinction is made between supervised and unsupervised learning. The distinction between Amazon’s algorithms and browsing on your own is a direct parallel to this distinction.

  5. Jamshid says:

    I live in the Bay Area, and as for physics and math books, I can’t think of any good ones. But go down south to silicon valley, and of course you will still find a great technology bookstore (programming books….). Check out DigitalGuru in Sunnyvale. I think it even had a few math/CS books on one wall.

  6. Bobito says:

    If it weren’t for pirates from east of the Rhein, many of us would have no access to scientific books at all.

  7. There is always Powell’s. If you don’t make it up to Portland enough, then you should start finding your way there more often!

  8. What about NY Public Library? Do they not carry technical books on math and physics?
    This was pointed out to me by @craigmod on Twitter here.

  9. AcademicLurker says:

    Back when I was a grad student, the first Borders in the Baltimore area opened and they had an excellent math/science section. In fact, a better selection of technical books than the university bookstore.

    The OP is right that, these days, visiting the Harvard coop when you happen to be in Boston is about the best you can do.

  10. Peter Woit says:

    Kartik Prabhu,
    What’s happening to research libraries and their technical book collections is another, much more complicated story, which I don’t want to even try and get into here. In any case, few such libraries have ever been well set up for browsing recent technical books, which is what has been lost by the loss of these bookstores.

  11. Heinz Lackner says:

    I do not understand their business model but at Science Books Online you can download pretty much everything ever published for free. There is no way that Cody’s, I miss it too, could compete with online sources like that. My last time at Cody’s was when Brian Greene was peddling his book about The Elegant (stringy) Universe.

  12. Kevin says:

    When my dad used to live near Columbia on 114th St. I would go to Papyrus bookstore, which Yelp says is still there. I recall them having lots of science books. Maybe I’m just hallucinating though…

  13. Peter Woit says:

    Kevin,
    That store is now called Book Culture. It’s a good book store with an academic bent, but these days only a small collection of technical math books (and just about none in physics or other sciences).

  14. John McVirgo says:

    I see myself and others partly responsible for this.

    In the past, I’d go into a good academic place like Blackwells, browse the books, and then buy it quite a bit cheaper from Amazon. Nowadays, I’ll deliberately order a more expensive book from the place, out of appreciation and concern for the people that work there that make real world browsing possible.

  15. Greg Lee says:

    Price is the obvious cause for the demise of technical bookstores, but just as important is a reduction of their role in discovery. The specialty buyers employed by bookstores acted as scouts for the customers, leading to the serendipity and pleasures of browsing. Today I rely on blogs such as our host’s, and I’m probably as well informed about new and interesting books as the specialty buyers once were at Cody’s, Printer’s Inc, and Stacey’s—Bay-area bookstores that once had killer math and computer book sections.

  16. BobDastro says:

    I am dating myself here but…
    When I was a Physics grad student at Columbia in the 1970s, the University Bookstore was not the best place to browse for books. For browsing, I used to patronize a scientific bookstore somewhere in the East Village not too far from NYU (on Christopher St., maybe?). They had an enormous selection, and one of the pleasures of those days was impulsively buying physics and mathematics texts that were not required for my courses but which were considered important standard references. I acquired quite a hardcover library, including Dirac’s Principles of Quantum Mechanics, most of the volumes in Landau and Lifschitz’s Course in Theoretical Physics library, and other similar works.
    Even factoring in inflation, these books were remarkably inexpensive (L&L’s Nonrelativistic Quantum Mechanics was $15, according to the flyleaf on my copy). Alas, these affordable prices did not survive the inflationary spikes of the mid-70s. One reason specialized bookstores are becoming so rare may be that the impulsive acquisition of academic books has become very challenging from a purely financial standpoint.

  17. Shantanu says:

    Peter, just to clarify : are all B &N bookstores in NYC (and elsewhere in USA) closed down or just the one on 5th and 18th street?
    There used to be a nice B & N book store
    near BU which had a great collection of technical books were I used to sit for hours.
    Hope its still there.
    Anyhow you are still lucky than those of us based in germany (and other non-english countries except probably Paris) where its very hard to find any decent bookstore (with English language technical books) to do the sort of browsing.

  18. Peter Woit says:

    Shantanu,
    It’s just the 5th Ave and 18th St. one that has recently closed. This was an unusual one, besides being historically the oldest, it also was the main one that historically had textbooks for lots of NYC colleges. I think part of the reason they closed is that the textbook business is collapsing, as students get their course books on-line.

    In recent years a couple of other Barnes and Nobles in the city have closed, but most are still in operation. It’s definitely a different environment though than twenty years ago, when they were opening up new ones everywhere all the time.

  19. Richard Séguin says:

    University Bookstore in Madison WI used to carry a large number of math and physics books and I spent a lot of time there browsing, sometimes discovering interesting books that probably would not otherwise have come to my attention by other means. They also had annual Springer sales. Over the years, the math section shrank to a joke, and finally completely expired. I occasionally found something interesting in Borders, but that large building is now office space. Barnes and Noble carries nothing interesting. Paul’s used bookstore has an odd assortment of mostly older books. Sad.

  20. Pavel Krapivsky says:

    There is a nice B & N book store near BU (right at the exit from the Kenmore station) which still has a good collection of technical books. Perhaps less rich collection than the one at Harvard coop and the one at Gibert Joseph in Paris (on boulevard Saint Michel), but good enough to spend an hour. Overall, there are of course less and less of such bookstores. I remember a wonderful specialized little bookstore Quantum Books here in Boston (more precisely, in Cambridge), but it is gone…

  21. Patrick says:

    Raven Used Books in Boston has a great selection of math/science books. There’s one in Harvard Square about a block from the COOP and there’s one on Newbury St. in Boston proper. Most of the technical books are Dover or university press; lots of monographs too. Not quite as extensive as the COOP, but still a really good selection that’s often cheaper than Amazon. Also usually has some interesting obscure texts. Almost always serendipitously find something unexpected when I go. The Barnes & Noble in the Prudential Center is also still around.

  22. OMF says:

    The instinctual urge here is to blame the internet and the likes of Amazon.

    Personally I think people just aren’t buying books anymore.

  23. Don Jennings says:

    I used to think I loved books. My office bookshelf is indulgently stacked with about $20k worth of maths & physics titles. Now I realize I hate them. They’re overpriced, heavy, unsearchable, fragile, don’t stay open properly, and don’t backup or synchronize with anything. I’d happily trade all mine for the corresponding pdf’s, if only IP lawyers would get out of the way.
    It’s the ideas in books that I like, not their physical manifestations.
    Yes, browsing in traditional bookstores is a nice idle luxury for us affluent urbanite first world academics with relatively mainstream interests and strong backs and bank accounts, but overall I think the world will be better off when they’re gone.

  24. Sebastian Thaler says:

    Peter,

    I had the exact same experience last Friday evening–went down to Fifth & 18th after work and found that B&N closed. Very surreal and sad; it was also my favorite B&N in NYC for its huge science and philosophy sections (luckily, Book Culture is excellent for the latter). Especially infuriating was that the Union Square North store nearby–which I’ve never especially liked–did not have the new Rubenstein book on multiverses in stock, despite it being available on both Amazon and B&N…

    BobDastro,

    I wonder if you’re thinking of National Book Stores (yes, plural), located on Astor Place just west of Cooper Square. First bookstore I ever browsed that had the complete collection of Dover science paperbacks. On its last legs in 1986 and closed soon afterward. It’s now a Starbucks, naturally…

  25. The problem with publishing, and this goes for music scores, books, fine art prints, and music recordings, is that there is a serious competition underway between two legal and business models of publishing.

    In the older model, authors produced works that agents peddled, editors or A&R people bought, publishers published, critics reviewed, stores stocked, and people browsed and bought. In the newer model, anything that can be scarfed up for free is put online as a vehicle for advertising. In the newer model, the publications are instantly available, either free or very cheap, and of lower average quality.

    In both cases all original works are copyrighted because simply producing something entitles you to its copyright, but in the second model, the payment to the author is fame, more than it is money.

    With respect to scientific publishing, this is of course not the whole story, because academic publishing has a variation on the older model described above, in which a captive audience is charged a premium for works that they mostly produce themselves. But the fame compensation, in a general and honorable sense, is also the main driver for authors in the scientific publishing model.

    There are two things that frighten me about the new model.

    The first one is that the good stuff will be lost in the shuffle. Whenever I try to look for works of quality online in self-publication (I’m not talking about the arXiv here), for example original visual art photographs, music recordings, online essays and poetry and especially science fiction, I find myself just swamped. Every month Amazon hosts literally thousands of self-published works of science fiction, while the commercial publishers put out a few dozen, with a few dozen more republications of classics. I can easily and quickly evaluate the few dozen commercially published books, but it takes hours to trawl through the self-published things. I have found just one self-published book (Hugh Howey’s Wool) that I would have bought if it were commercially published. I’m sure there are more like Wool, but damn are they hard to find.

    The second thing I fear is that the ability to carry ads will infest self-published works and warp their direction and quality. Obviously part of Amazon’s motive for hosting self-published works is to attract customers. These books are ads as much as they are anything else, at a minimum they bring the author and his or her friends to Amazon to browse a bit.

    About scientific publishing, peer review that is both open and critical is, well, critical. A purely online scientific publishing system run by the scientists themselves and reviewed (blindly) by themselves would seem to be an attractive way out of the mess, so why hasn’t it caught on? The arXiv doesn’t fit this description, either.

  26. Joel Rice says:

    That is awful. I got Kernighan and Ritchie at the BN on 18th st, and used to go to the McGraw Hill store every week – then to the 40th st Science library. One you did not mention was the National Bookstore near Cooper Union – great place to browse, until they shrink wrapped all the books (long ago). They had a big Dover section – got Weyl on Group Theory for $3.50 !! But about The Strand – there was a character who got there every thursday and scapped up all the good stuff before anyone could even look at it, though I did find Cartan’s Lectures on Spinors – in French.

  27. Shecky R says:

    I too lament the disappearance of brick-and-mortar bookstores. I understand the appeal for fiction-lovers of downloading dozens of novels onto their Kindles etc., but have never understood how readers of math and science (and some other non-fiction) could find tablets satisfying. And as a member of Barnes&N., with the additional coupons they offer, I essentially get most of my books at their store for the same price I would pay Amazon by the time shipping& handling is added on.
    First, the big box stores came along and put the local mom-and-pops out of business, and now the Web is putting the big boxers out of business… sad to see the landscape changing (guess I’m just an old fogie!).

  28. Visitor says:

    Kartik Prabhu mentioned the NY Public Library. Their http://nypl.org website has an interesting feature – if you look up a book in their on-line catalog, you will have the option to “browse the shelf”. (I’ve never used it though, so I can not say how well it works.)

    I recall when Broadway in the area of the Strand was lined with second-hand bookstores. But except for the Strand, there is not a single one left. And the Barnes & Noble Annex, across the street from the main B&N store on 18th & 5th, which was probably the second-largest used bookstore in the city (after the Strand), closed down some time in the mid-90′s if I correctly remember.

  29. srp says:

    The Internet has been a complement rather than a substitute for used books; the ability to do online sales has increased the “velocity” of the stock of books, with people more easily able to buy and sell them. So in L.A., where on the westside there is nary a new bookstore, there are many used book stores, some of which carry idiosyncratic and varying inventories of technical books.

    Long before B&N and Borders started shutting down their stores, L.A. lost its Technical Bookstore, which used to be a fantastic browsing spot. Their actual business seemed to depend very heavily on selling medical books to aspiring nurses, paramedics, physicians, etc., but they carried an amazing variety of stuff, especially in engineering and computer science areas that I would never have even known existed. Their new arrivals display was a great way to see what was going on in different fields. They moved online, I think.

    Just found another L.A. technical bookstore that says it will be closing on February 14: http://opamp.com/

  30. Jim Akerlund says:

    Adam J. Calhoun,
    I used to live in Portland and frequented Powell’s Technical. This past September I passed through Portland and decided to visit Powell’s Technical. They moved it. What was once a large store has now been reduced to the size of a 7-11 and now sits across the street from Powell’s main store.

  31. Tim May says:

    I’ve lived in the greater Bay Area (counting the Monterey Bay Area) since 1974, minus 1980–82 when I lived near Portland, OR.).

    As of the 1980s, the South Bay (Silicon Valley) was remarkably rich in technical bookstores. Computer Literacy opened in Sunnyvale in around 1983 and later opened a couple of other branches. They closed sometime around 10 years later. Also, Stacey’s in Palo Alto, on University, had a very large collection of math, physics, and CS titles.

    Even Printer’s Inc., part coffee house, part bookstore, had a large selection. And Stanford Bookstore, both the campus store and the University Ave. store, had large selections.

    (I bought many books at these places. Some I expensed to my employer at the time, Intel, some I bought on my own.)

    First to go was the vaunted, famed Computer Literacy. Then Staceys went. (The store on University turned into a Pottery Barn…this will perhaps figure into the history of the decline.) Printer’s Inc. reverted to just a coffee house (with some sort of art gallery attached, last I looked, 5-8 years ago. It may be gone now.).

    Borders vanished. A small outlet of Brentano’s at a regional mall also vanished (perhaps years earlier).

    There may still be a Barnes and Noble in Santa Clara/San Jose. Last I was there, it was infested with after school kids occupying all chairs and coffee house seats doing homework.

    (This is also what happened to my local Borders in Santa Cruz. Every available seat was filled with kids with laptops. I think this figures centrally in why Borders failed.)

    In my town, Bookshop Santa Cruz is still thriving. It was always in the ranks of Kepler’s in Menlo Park and Cody’s in Berkeley (though never with the technical coverage of Cody’s, but at least the equal of Kepler’s in its heyday). BSC seems to be thriving, and is quite crowded on many days. It may survive the current ice age.

    Fortunately, Amazon long ago became a better place to find interesting books. If the high retail prices are a problem, the used copies are generally excellent. I’ve probably bought 80% of my math and physics books in the past 10 years via the best used deal. Rarely have I been disappointed. (Authors and publishers may scream that buying used books is depriving them of their profits from a $149.95 academic text.)

    And then there’s the East of the Rhine site someone mentioned. Google for it. Many of the paper books I already own I have “checked out” from this library in PDF or EPUB form. Ever so much much handier on my 64 GB iPad. Always there, never misplaced, easily searchable. 30,000 books can fit on this iPad, and bigger ones are coming.

    Hint: LibGen, or Library Genesis.

    –Tim May

  32. Mayer A. Landau says:

    Back in the 80′s, when I lived in NYC, I used to go a lot to Book Scientific. The store was at 18 East 16th street in Manhattan. They would give you a standard 10% discount. Some books had a 30-50% discount because they were second hand.

    Then, sometime in the late 90′s, they went out of business. I went to the going out-of-business sale. There were huge discounts on the books that remained on the shelves. I asked the owner why she was going out of business, and she said they could not compete with online retailers. The problem became that book prices on technical books kept going up, up, and up. So, while in the 80′s, you could put $30-$40 down on a book, by the late 90′s many books were heading to over a $100. At that point, casual buying stopped for me. If I needed, or otherwise wanted, a book, I would go online to Amazon and see if anyone was selling the book second hand for a lot less. Or, I would xerox it at the University library.

    Then, in the last few years, a lot of foreign internet websites popped up in Russia, China, and the Ukraine with free electronic copies. At that point it became simply a matter of going to Google translate, finding the book you wanted and downloading. You can’t beat that! I have not bought a book now for four years.

    Now, does an electronic book beat holding a paper book in the hand and reading it while lying on the couch? No, but with the price of books what they are, it is far cheaper to print out the book and read your printed copy on the couch. Furthermore, most of the books I bought were for reference mostly, not full throttled cover to cover reading. For that electronic is preferable, for two reasons. You can search a pdf and you can carry your whole library with you on a thumb drive.
    Finally, as LaTex and microsoft word spread through the land, it became easier and easier for professors to write a book. With ease of writing came poorer quality. Many technical books out there right now are not worth the paper they are written on, and certainly not $100.

    In the end, the technical bookstore became an anachronism, whose demise was speeded up by the unabashed greed of the book publishers, and maybe the rushed poor quality writing of the authors.

  33. chiz says:

    Peter Woit:

    In any case, few such libraries have ever been well set up for browsing recent technical books

    I find the New Book Displays in local libraries useful for this purpose. Do the libraries you use not do this or is there some other problem?

  34. Youngun says:

    What I don’t think has been stated is that there is a vast array of material on the internet which is legal and free.

    Lecture notes, full textbooks, lecture videos, videos by leading maths figures, and not lest places like wikipedia and ncatlab and simple google searches.

    I also observe that it is common practice to maintain a personal pdf library, sourced from the internet.

  35. karthik says:

    Citylights in SFO has a good section on popular math and science books.

  36. Youngun or whoever you are (I add “whoever you are” to everyone who uses a handle online), one of the main problems many of us are having is, sure there is a great deal of great stuff available online, and nobody wants to turn back the clock on that, but a library, a bookstore, an edited journal, provide an extremely useful filtering and selecting mechanism. This pre-selection saved us a lot of time and presented us with a wonderful smorgasbord of high-quality eats.

    There probably is actually more high-quality stuff in total on the internet nowadays, but there’s no selection. There are, literally, hundreds or even thousands of mediocre or outright incompetent items for every one that would have been selected by an editor or librarian in the old days. I don’t have time to wade through this crap, and believe me I have tried.

    What do you do about that?

    Regards,
    Mike

  37. Charles G Waldman says:

    I share your sentiment of sadness in the decline of scientific bookstores, but I’m happy to note that the Seminary Co-op Bookstore in Chicago has a large math/physics section, and is still going strong.

  38. Sometimes I feel like relocating to Portland solely for the pleasure of being able to visit and buy from Powell’s Bookstore (they have both a general and a separate technical store). I still remember how I found a second edition of Dirac’s quantum mechanics book there.

  39. Benni says:

    In Munich, it was the same.
    Next to Ludwig-Maximilians-University, which has, since the early days of Sommerfeld and Heisenberg, a world renowned Physics department, there was a book store which had, nothing else but math and physics books. The owners were old. Their children did not want to run the shop, because it was not lucrative enough. Its profit decreased astonishingly year for year, since amazon expanded in germany. So the shop finally closed. Now there is no shop in munich, where one can look into specialized physics and math books before buying them. The other shops only have few undergraduate books when it comes to physics.

  40. Bob The Programmer says:

    I remember the old Kroch’s and Brentano’s in Chicago, huge math and science section at all levels.

    And the days when university bookstores had serious STEM sections also.

    Somehow Amazon and smaller competitors don’t seem to be a complete substitute.

  41. TomD says:

    Peter,
    Remember in the 80′s the U-store at Princeton was great.. It used to be that one of my greatest treats was to spend a few hours in there or at the Harvard Coop. I think the loss of good technical bookstores is terrible. For one thing, I have a hard time reading electronic versions when one has to flip back and forth to see previous equations, figures, etc.

    It’s good to hear from other posters that there are a few places left. UT Austin used to be good, but now just has shirts. Stanford bookstore declined tremendously.

    Of course, every time I move I promise myself to never buy another book!

  42. Bobito says:

    With respect to what Michael Gogins says, one might add that browsing online is not the same as browsing physically. In the old days one went to the library or bookstore and found the book one was looking for and rapidly could see that it was useless, but the book next to it turned out to be just what one needed. That doesn’t happen as easily now, and no one seems to have found a good substitute for it. Summary: now there is more available, but the filters are less functional, and search process less efficient.

    The flip side is that when one works in a less-well-financed-than-the-USA country, there weren’t any libraries/bookstores worth a damn anyway, so the current situation is an improvement.

  43. BooBooks says:

    Important comments and discussion, Peter!
    In Berkeley there was not only Cody’s, which had the best math collection, but also Moe’s, Shakespeare and Co (used) and North Side Bookstore. Are they all gone now?

    In Paris the other wonderful Shakespeare must still be thriving, having been passed on recently to the next generation, but it has never had any math or science to speak of.

    Random notes: in Urbana Illinois, the Illini Union Bookstore is a shadow of its former wonderful self, all ipods and ipads and t-shirts and sweatshirts. Brazil has always been bad for book-lovers; the culture there is going out or TV rather than reading, but there is a vicious circle as books are way too expensive, imported ones even more so. One good bookstore on Pedroso de Morais- 4 stories of books 15 years ago- was taken over by the French chain FNAC which added cds, dvds, tvs, cameras and computers. That meant there were 2 floors of books left, then one, most recently only 1/3 of a floor, divided with cds and dvds, as ipods and flat screens have taken over the rest of the 4 stories.

    Yes, pdfs are wonderful as a portable library, but only for reference, not for reading,
    not for studying. I learned so much from my old wonderful texts which I still have crowding my too-small apartment. What are today’s students supposed to do? Library copies, pdfs or xerox copies are a poor substitute. And Amazon is great but the deals I so often found browsing at used stores were much better.

    Maybe the new mac Retina screens help somewhat with the eyestrain, or the Kindle reflected light screen; but does the latter accept pdfs?

    While we are lamenting the decline of literacy, I have recently heard that many US kids are no longer learning cursive writing (or reading). I was shocked to learn this; kids will be sent out into the world partially handicapped. What, “mastering” the mouse, or Excel or Power Point is supposed to compensate for that? This dumbing-down of the populace is apparently one more legacy of the over-testing mandated by Bush’s inappropriately named “No Child Left Behind” program.

  44. Simple biologist says:

    Interesting topic and also the one that has finally made me feel like a luddite. I’m only (only?) in my late thirties, but I have l’ve been using computers for over 30 years. Got my mom to thank for that. It’s really the ebooks and on-line book stores that have become the first technological advancement- in my life time- that have made me firmly to say no.

    For me there’s no replacement for the smell of ink, the texture of paper and browsing through (physical) books in a book store. No online store or digital book will ever be the same for me. Oh and quality book stores are dying in northern europe as well.

    Just screw the tablets and get of my lawn!

  45. Peter Woit says:

    Some recent experiences in bookstores reminded me of some of the reasons I’ve found them so valuable, providing something I can’t get on Amazon:

    1. As some others mentioned, what makes a good bookstore is not having everything, but having a well-chosen selection of things. On Amazon, you have millions of books, and a computer algorithm that tries to figure you out. In a good bookstore, someone has done the work for you of sorting through a huge number of possiblities, picking out the most interesting and worthwhile ones. If they’ve done this well, this is an extremely valuable and high-level service.

    2. If I find a book in a bookstore, the fact that I can look at any part of it (unlike Amazon, where you just get blurbs, and maybe access to the table of contents and a few pages) means that I can make a well-informed decision about whether the book is worth my time and money. For a book that looks interesting, I can quickly flip through and find the parts most likely to be of interest. I can then see whether there’s really not much there, so buying the book would be a mistake, or, more happily, that there’s a lot of interesting material, making the book purchase a good idea. With the high price of technical books, even for those in wealthy countries with dedicated funds from their institution for books, one can’t afford to buy everything that initially looks interesting.

  46. August Penn says:

    Hey Peter,
    The West Towne Mall in Madison, Wisconsin has a fairly good math and science section, probably not as good as the B&N in New York at Fifth Ave. and 18th St. had though. I feel for you.

  47. Tim May says:

    I’m happy with the current situation, as compared to, say, 1970.

    Back then, there was a good scientific bookstore in downtown Washington, D.C., but it was quite a trek for me (just finishing high school, just starting college). The local bookstores were helpless…a Waldenbooks several miles away, a Brentano’s about 15 miles away. I could special order a book, like Lawden’s “Tensor” book (which I recall ordering), but it took a few weeks to arrive.

    I experienced the heyday of technical books in the Bay Area. That is, the 1980s. I had five or six bookstores within 10 miles of me: Computer Literacy (3 locations), Printer’s Inc. in Mountain View, Stacey’s in Palo Alto (and they even opened a second one in Cupertino), Kepler’s in Menlo Park, and two very well-stocked Stanford Bookstore shops. (The main campus one was huge, the University Avenue Annex was also pretty well-stocked, on three levels.) And I may be forgetting a couple of others.

    But times change. Books shot up in price, from fairly reasonable $15 prices to nosebleed prices of $150 or more (for math and physics non-popular books). Binding quality also went down, from sewn binding that would withstand years of use to glued binding that never laid flat and that, at worst, had pages literally falling out.

    (I bought a Springer Verlag copy of Mac Lane and Mjordiik’s “Sheaves” and the pages literally began to fall out as soon as I opened the book. First a few, then more. I contacted an office of S-V in Virginia, listed as the printer, and they said “Tough luck.” I eventually removed all of the pages, punched holes in them, and put them into a small 3-ring binder. This was what book publishing came to.)

    Today, I have access to tens of thousands of PDFs and EPUBs, readable on my Mac Book Pro Retina (no eye strain) or my iPad Retina (no eye strain).

    I don’t lose them, misplace them, or lend them out.

    And, they mix easily with the vast number of Archive and other PDF papers I have.

    I don’t miss the past.

    –Tim May

  48. Richard Séguin says:

    Tim,

    Badly bound books is not a new problem. In the 1970s I bought a copy of Rotman’s The Theory of Groups and the pages began falling out almost immediately. You’re right about the hugely inflated price of books though. The Rotman book cost only $14.50 at that time. Now, I cringe thinking of ordering an $80+ book from Amazon without being able to “look inside.”

  49. David Derbes says:

    I’ve bought technical books for nearly fifty years. The beginning of the end of good technical bookstores was the capitulation of nearly every university bookstore to Barnes and Noble (including the celebrated Harvard Coop.) In my salad days I bought books at HK Lewis, Gower Street, London (gone); Dillons, London (gone, or more accurately, transformed to a Blackwells, I think), Princeton’s U-Store, MIT Coop, Heffer’s in Cambridge UK, Blackwells in Oxford (Weinberg’s “Gravitation and Cosmology”, nine pounds in 1974, about $18 US), James Thin in Edinburgh (gone), Reiter’s in Washington, DC, and many another store now gone. The original Blackwells, Broad Street Oxford had a wonderful collection in the ’70′s, when I was a grad student in Edinburgh, but the last time I was there it was really disappointing.

    So, without further ado, the best technical bookstore I now know of still extant: The Seminary Co-Op, Woodlawn Avenue, Hyde Park, Chicago, 60615. Tremendous math section, much better than average physics. This is, in my opinion, the finest scholarly bookstore in North America. Last time I was there the bookstore at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign also had a great selections in math, physics and computer science. We also have in Hyde Park the original Powell’s, second-hand only. Incidentally they are selling a great number of Chandrasekhar’s personal books. When Mike Powell finally tired of the perpetual winter, he lit out for Portland.

    I don’t know why they’ve all folded. Part of it is the unbelievable greed of many textbook publishers (I bought the great Purcell “Electricity and Magnetism” for $6.95 from the U-Store in 1970; when McGraw-Hill last offered it, it listed for north of $210. Not bad for a book originally published in 1964, whose author was dead for twenty years. Happily, Cambridge sells it, and hurray! a third edition in MKS units with a gazillion new problems by David Morin, for a reasonable sum ($80, I think.)
    The other part is that I guess kids don’t buy books any more. I find this unbearably sad.

  50. Jeff m says:

    Sorry to hear about b&n closing, loved that place as a teenager. Got some great physics and math books, plus some amazing other stuff like a comic book version of Chaucer’s The Millers Tale done by the fabulous furry freak brothers. Also sorry to hear about book scientific, spent a lot of time there when I was at the GC