When I was growing up, my dad always gave me books for my birthday. Children’s books when I was little, and more literary fare when I was a teenager – books he’d read himself and loved. He worked in Manhattan and bought books home from the Barnes & Noble there. I still remember what the bags looked like (brown and white), and how excited I was knowing that inside them I would find books for me. Once or twice I actually got to go pick out my own books, in that New York City store that seemed huge. It was the seventies, before the era of the big box book retailers, so our options closer to home were limited to mall bookstores and one or two small independents.
My kids had a very different experience. Growing up in the nineties (probably the height of the big box bookstore era), they knew the joy of story time, craft projects, and negotiating with the other toddlers for the best trains on the brio table (I never saw the point in shelling out all the money for one when they could play at B&N for free). My kids were spoiled when it came to books. We’d go by every few weeks and they could pick one out – anything that wasn’t what I called a “gimmick book” (meaning it came with stickers or a toy). As far as I was concerned, Barnes & Noble and Borders were great. Great places to take your kids and browse books, great places to grab a cup of coffee and look at books for yourself.
Well, we all know what happened to Borders. This week, Barnes & Noble announced that it plans to close stores at the rate of twenty a year (even, in some cases, stores that are profitable). Ultimately, they plan to reduce their stores from 689 to 450-500. I can’t pretend that this is a complete surprise. When Borders shut their doors, I knew I was part of the problem. I read all my books electronically if I can possibly help it. I buy my kids copies of books for school, and maybe the occasional gift. I’m hardly alone. But I still spent a lot of time in Barnes & Noble. My former job was right down the street, and I enjoyed sitting in the cafe nearly every lunch hour, reading and enjoying my coffee (at least I was still buying that, right?). And I love browsing there. I honestly don’t feel like I need to hold an actual, physical book in my hands to read it, but I still like finding good reads that way. Losing stores means losing out on that experience – for a lot of people.
I’ve heard some smugness from fans of independent bookstores, people who felt that the big boxes stomped too many of the independents out of existence and are now getting what they deserve – their own death at the hands of the internet. I don’t really agree with that. In the first place, most independent bookstores were not in the suburbs. In my neck of the woods, the huge indy bookstore is Tattered Cover, which has three of its own stores. It’s a fun place to shop, but it serves a very different function, particularly if you are a romance reader. Take a look at their very small romance section, and you’ll see what I mean. Mass market readers are not their target market. The irony may be that Tattered Cover is the last store standing in this town. And as much as I enjoy going there, I can’t help but think that as a society we are losing out on a valuable shared experience.
I hope this downsizing works and that it’s not just the beginning of the end. Maybe bookstores will become more like showrooms? Because I still want to be able to go to one. I’m a good 10-15 years away from grandchildren, but I’d like to be able to take them to a children’s section of an actual bookstore one day. Somehow huddling around an iPad while they choose between electronic copies of Sylvester and the Magic Pebble or Chicka Chicka Boom Boom is not what I have in mind.
– Blythe Barnill