Thursday, February 17, 2011

Worlds Without Borders

By now the news of the bookstore chain Borders filing for bankruptcy protection--and announcing the closing of over 200 stores across the country--has sent shock waves through the publishing industry and the literary world. It makes me sad, to be sure, and it makes me worried about how publishers are going to absorb those multimillion-dollar debts...but where it really starts to worry me is on the question of landscape. As bookstores shutter, how will neighborhoods be transformed?

If you live in an urban area, it's likely that you've got a Borders or Barnes & Noble within 15 minutes walking distance, and so the displacement of your local bookstore is more a change in scenery than a change in neighborhood character. This store usually carries with it a franchised coffee chain, and so the bookstore became a waystation, a good spot for a full afternoon of entertainment. If I ever had to meet someone at Lincoln Center on the Upper West Side, I'd always end up popping into the Barnes & Noble on the corner, and almost always walking out with one or two purchases I hadn't intended before. Now that the store is shuttered and plans are in place for a Century 21 in that location, I imagine I won't be making as many impulse buys...

But this is a city, and where one bookstore closes, another is open down the street. If you live outside of an urban area, this becomes much more problematic. As suburbs grew and jobs moved outside of small towns, the shopping center and strip mall became the way we do our shopping. This moved the bookstore out of the town square and into the megastore, which is how B&N and Borders came to be so profitable. Bookstores didn't require the same kind of curated experience that comes with a small storefront; instead, they could carry everything--music, DVDs, magazines--and engage new methods of promoting new titles, through endtable displays, the front-of-store placement, holiday tables, and mega-discounting. And being in a strip mall meant that it was much easier for people to lump their book buying in with their everyday errands. After a grueling round of shopping at Target, you could drop your 5-year-old in the children's books section and take 15 minutes for yourself to browse the newest literary fiction. The spontaneity--and relative proximity--of the bookstore was still available.

But with the closing of these major chains, we're moving into a third, more distance model of book-buying, one that relies entirely on the self-driven purchasing of books on the web. (Yes, e-readers make it possible to buy books spontaneously, but anyone that buys a Kindle is already invested in reading books on a regular basis. Remember, you can only call it democracy if you really care about voting.) Now suburban readers may find themselves in the same predicament as rural readers: with no easy bookstore to access, everything will have to be discovered and purchased online. (And this all presupposes that you have a Internet-accessing computer at home and a credit card on which you can buy books, something that can't be taken for granted.) Bookstores are structured to guide consumers, but even with well-designed websites, we now have to guide--and motivate--ourselves to read.

People have already spent much time bemoaning the loss of bookstores because of what they mean as places to shop, but I bemoan them for what they meant as landmarks, as neighborhood hangouts. If you're lucky enough to have grown up with a terrific independent bookstore, it probably meant as much to you as your local library. As a child, books were the one thing my parents were always willing to buy for me: a book purchase could happen on any day of the week, not just on a birthday or special occasion. Even now the books I read as a child are the most difficult to throw away. But more than the books themselves were the bookstores--I grew up among smart, intellectually curious people, and one of the ways I knew this was by how many bookstores were in my neighborhood. Whether it's Borders, B&N, or more indies that disappear next, it matters that these hallmarks of local culture, watering holes that enable people to converse and exchange ideas, were nearby and accessible and treated as important. If the stores keep shuttering, we'll have to start looking elsewhere to figure out exactly where we live and what culture we can create.

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