Is it the end of bookstores or the sound of one hand clapping?

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?

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20 thoughts on “Is it the end of bookstores or the sound of one hand clapping?

  1. This is such a perfect example of companies not moving with the times. Book stores need to think like public libraries when it comes to promoting reading. They relied solely on selling, not creating an experience that one couldn’t get at home. Great read…

  2. I quit browsing the local big box stores because they never had any parking. I bought my kindle and that was that. Plus I like not having piles of books around. I never thought I’d say that, but it’s true. I now carry over a hundred titles with me all the time. I’ve definitely made the shift to e-reading.

  3. A place to engage in friendly banter while sipping on my latte aside, like you, it has been years since I purchased a hard-cover from the brick ‘n mortar store(s). Sad to admit this because I was there and willing (or wanting is more accurate) but in the end I was not so willing to part with a quarter of my weekly pay. As a writer it is a time of growth of dust flying around you; each of us need to pick which it will be for us. I don’t like dust all that much; so I’m learning about all the advantages e-books provide even if I don’t like this trend all that much. How is everyone else feeling about this?

  4. I really like this post! I had this conversation with my mother some time ago, and I came to the conclusion that for the next 50 years or more people who love books will always prefer to hold one in hand. Our energies meld together and the book becomes a part of the person reading it. I lost a special book years ago, and even though I CAN replace it, I never have. I want “MY BOOK BACK!”
    My mother’s copy of Gone with the WInd is all battered and torn, but it has her “imprint” on it, so I would never throw it away. However, someone who didn’t have the connection to my mom,would toss it immediately. I guess it’s more about people,places, and experiences than the book anyway, but e- readers don’t hold the memories in the same way.
    Thanks for the post.

  5. I can relate to this Susan. If I didn’t live almost right next to the mall I would have almost no time to browse at the bookstore, much as I love flipping through pages and admiring the magazine covers. Thanks for sharing !

  6. Yes YES! Bookstores were a great place to socialize, to get lost, browse, and I will never get a kindle! Mark my words! Fortunately I’m a book hoarder and already have enough books to outlast me so even if real books go away – I’m good!

  7. It’s tricky, isn’t it? I love a good browse – and can bear browsing in a real bookshop for much longer than I can on-line, but I can’t see any way that it can really work commercially any more, except for bookshops with really interesting niche stuff. In Melbourne, Borders and another big bookshop called Readings were across the road from one another, and a lot of people browse after dinner. Redaing has more off-the-wall, academic and art books, and it is still there, and still busy. But we can get the stuff they sold at Borders anywhere.

  8. Although I have an e-reader (kobo), I still like paperbacks, and I buy them once in a while. I just go to a bookstore at lunch to browse the shelves. Sometimes I find really good books that I wouldn’t have found if I were going through the public library or Kobostore. And the store I go to is always busy, with line-ups and such. I never buy hardcover copy. They are too unwieldy and don’t fit in my purse.

  9. Hi Susan, this is a really good post. The publishing world has changed so much so quickly! I still like to turn my own pages and feel paper between my fingers, but I the only books I ever pay full price for are those written by friends. One day I will probably plunge into the world of electronic publishing. But until books become completely obsolete, I will haunt Half Price Books and library book sales. I look forward to your next post.

    • Thanks so much, Naomi! Good for you for waving the “real” book flag! I love hearing from everyone; it definitely makes me feel less alone in missing a bookstore I did nothing to support. 🙂 (Maybe I feel a little guilty?)

  10. Great post, Susan! I, too, was saddened by the closing of the Borders in my town, and of several smaller bookstores as well. Though I know I will have to do it someday, I am holding off from buying an e-reader. I can’t imagine NOT going to a bookstore and picking up an actual, physical book!
    I am twenty-one years old, and all throughout high school I would spend afternoons browsing the shelves at the local Barnes and Noble and just enjoying the “experience” of the bookstore. It’s impossible to feel the same way when browsing Amazon’s selection of books/e-books.
    And I totally share your concern about my generation and social interaction. Much of my communication with others in done through texting/Facebook when I could just as easily call or see friends in person. The last time I took a train home to Boston, I didn’t talk to a single person for seven hours–got my ticket from a machine, money from an ATM, filled out a slip of paper to order a sandwich–and everyone on the train was glued to their cell phones.
    And with everything being available online (clothes, music, books, etc.) there’s barely a reason to leave the house. Everything is eerily instant, like something out of a dystopian novel.
    Anyway, thanks for the post. It’s good to know I’m not alone!

    • Even worse, I can’t help but wonder how this will affect the writing of books the further away from interaction with other people we get. In a good story, the process of traveling, paying for your ticket, meeting people on the train etc. were all opportunities for a plot to thicken, for characters to affect forward movement, etc. When it’s just us, as with your recent trip to Boston, it almost negates the possibility of a story erupting. The more we turn inwards, it’s almost like, the less we’re able to create an environment where a story can happen. Let’s face it, to have a story you need conflict. And to have conflict, you need people interacting!

  11. We’re going the same way in the uk. Another indi store has closed in the town where I shop.
    I like books; floor to ceiling, wall to wall books. It’s impossible to create this feel at home. And being with strangers who all love books, the peace and quiet, the sound of riffling pages.
    About 30 years ago I read a story about the future, where each person lives alone in their tiny self-contained flat. The only contact is through electronic machines…

    • The story you read really does feel like what we’re facing in the future! I’m sorry that all our technological advancements in communication seem to be moving us further and further away from actual contact with each other.

  12. I don’t think it has to be a nail in the coffin, so to speak. Sometimes I wonder why people aren’t trying to find new ways of merging physical interaction with internet interaction. Like reading stores — and that is probably a very flawed idea, but it’s an idea nonetheless. You cut a deal with Amazon or Barnes & Noble or even self-publishers that, for a fix fee (because I hate permanent percentage cuts that seem to be so common in the publishing sphere) they’ll offer a set amount of your ebooks in their reading section. You pay them to have your ebooks showcased there, and people come there to read on in-store ereaders and have book groups and such. You like the book you’re reading you just buy that direct copy either through an in-store account or a separate one. You get the instant, never-out-of-stock availability that ebooks provide with the physical interaction of people and a location.

    My point here is that people are talking about death and nails in coffins when I think there should be more talk about metamorphosis and revitalization through various new and updated ways.

  13. The pendulum will more than likely swing further before it swings back, but swing back it will. Because there are few things as beautiful and tactile as a bound and illustrated book with a beautifully designed type face and sensuous paper setting on the coffee table, a library shelf or held in our hand while we’re curled up in our favorite chair in front of the fire on a long winters night. Nothing. It’s the weight of it as we turn the pages as the story literally unfolds, inviting us in to follow the yellow brick road or fly on the wings of dragons across centuries past, present or far, far into the future universes away. and what about pop-ups or pages that fold out with maps, castles and dungeons, promising clues and treasure, must everything fit in our pocket and dance to the stroke of the tip of our finger, must it be electronic and the “next thing” to attract our overcrowded interests, must we give up walking bare foot on the beach, can our imaginations not reach to the clouds and beyond, dare we not touch and hold a book or worlds in our arms? will we read electronic text to our sons and daughters as they grow in our laps. will they never imagine what OZ looks like without the help of a 3, 4 or 10-D movie, is that our only choice electronic type on a pocket sized screen or the bottomless 3-D screen in a mega theater?

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