I didn’t rejoice when Borders announced last fall that they were going belly up, but, at the time, I didn’t really care, either. I’d long since stopped buying even paperbacks there although it was still nice on an unhurried lunch hour to browse through their magazine shelves to flip through periodicals I never knew existed. Except for the odd gift here and there, I can’t remember buying a hardback book at any of the big box bookstores for at least five years. And since the advent of the affordable e-reader, I haven’t even bothered picking up a paperback book from Wal-Mart—not when it’s so much more convenient, not to mention cheaper, to download it to my Kindle. (Brick and mortar bookstores require climbing out of your bunny slippers and driving. Real-place bookstores require parking and standing in line. When I want the third book in the Hunger Games series, I want it NOW.)
So why does it feel, with the closing of this once warm and happy place (and oh! it always smelled so good inside!) like the world has turned its back on reading and literature—not just the method by which it was delivered to us? If anything, thanks to e-readers and smartphones, we’re all reading much more than before. We’re reading in line at movie theaters, in doctors’ offices, and even while waiting for traffic lights (well, maybe that’s just me). Plus, now that there is no tell-tale cover of heaving bosoms or pre-teen sci-fi fantasy, no one can see what we’re reading either.
The sad, bare shelves aside, it wasn’t reading we were turning our backs on, even though that’s how it felt last fall when my husband and I picked over the rumble sale that was our neighborhood Borders store. What we really lost was the pleasure of browsing that the big bookstore afforded. Anchoring an outdoor string of Pottery Barns and Gaps, the Borders in our neighborhood was the only way we could turn a “trip to the mall” into a joint affair. Neither of us can manage to wander around Williams and Sonoma for an hour (as much as we like the place) but we could always get happily lost, coffee cup in hand, at Borders for much longer. (Plus, I could even leave him and go to J Crew and come back and he was still happy to be “out shopping” with me. Win-win.)
Reading is, by its nature, a solitary pleasure but the big box bookstores gave us a steady stream of coffee and plush chairs and brought other bibliophiles together. They surrounded us with all the lush colors of one magnificent book cover after another—in fact rows and rows and stacks and stacks of them—the objects of our mutual desire. It was such a lovely little world. And for awhile it didn’t matter that we weren’t actually buying anything. In fact, for years I stubbornly refused to pay $25 for a hardback book. I picked them up, read the blurb copy, and photographed the gorgeous covers with my cellphone so that I could find them later either at the library or as an e-book. For me, the big bookstores—and the mom and pops for that matter—were about everything except actually purchasing the book. They were about fellowship, good coffee, relaxed browsing, and discovering new books.
I wonder, amid all the wondering of what the future of bookstores will be, if there might someday once again be a place to congregate—with coffee and plush chairs and other book lovers. Oh, that’s right…that’d be the Internet Book Clubs. And the coffee is chez vous and the plush chair is your living room couch. It’s just that, it seems to me, especially on top of the worry that my Boomer generation often confesses to about our children’s generation possibly having difficulty “connecting” in person, might this be another nail in the coffin of personal interaction?