Picking at the Bones of a Dying Bookstore
It’s no secret bookstores have been in trouble for some time now. Small independent bookstores have been dropping like flies left and right. One of the oldest and best loved independent bookstores in Philadelphia, Robin’s, recently closed, reinvented itself, and reopened in new space above its old location. It now sells mostly used books, along with some new books, and focuses on events as well. People are just dang glad to have some piece of the old store, opened in 1936 (in the middle of a depression!), in existence.
But hey, at least we have the big chain stores, right? Maybe not. Though I live in an area where a short drive will take me to any of several big chain stores, my most favorite one, the Borders in Chestnut Hill, is closing. Saturday is its last day. Chestnut Hill is a tony urban-suburb of Philadelphia that has, nevertheless, been struggling just like everyone else in this crazy economy. Rents are high, business is slow. You do the math. Landlords have been loathe to cut rents because recovery is just around the corner, or cutting rent will give people the idea that Chestnut Hill isn’t such a tony address anymore, or they think they can squeeze more blood from stones, or I don’t know what. Some storefronts are empty, a very unusual sight in that neighborhood.
And now, the great big huge Borders at the top of Germantown Avenue (sort of the equivalent of an anchor store in a mall) is going dark. They are even selling the shelves and furniture from the store. I can’t imagine what, if anything, will move into this really lovely architectural space, but I am pretty sure it will not be something that lets me browse bookshelves and sit around reading and sipping coffee while sunlight pours through the beautiful enormous second-story bay window.
Still, mine is not the loss of the good people of Laredo, TX. Laredo is about to become the largest U.S. city without a bookstore, as the B.Dalton bookstore there prepares to close its doors.
DAVIES: It’s the last days of the Laredo B. Dalton, and some long time customers, like Annette Gonzales, are stopping by just to say goodbye to the store.
Ms. ANNETTE GONZALES: It’s devastating. It’s sad that there’s going to be no full-fledged bookstore here, that we’ll have to go online or be left to Target and Wal-Mart.
DAVIES: Clive Warner shares that sentiment. He’s stocking up on books today before his return home to Monterrey, Mexico, about 150 miles to the south.
Mr. CLIVE WARNER (Citiria Publishing): This is horrendous, because I come over here to do my shopping for books. It means I’m going to have to go to McAllen in the future.
DAVIES: The Liverpool native runs a small science fiction publishing house. He says the forecast is grim for many brick-and-mortar bookstores.
Mr. WARNER: Oh, they’re finished. Everything’s going online.
Everything’s going online. That’s IF you have a line to go on. No internet access? Well, just go to your local library…oh, wait, I forgot. Our local governments are strapped for cash these days and we might just have to shut the libraries down. So sorry. But hey, if you can’t afford wi-fi, what the hell are you doing buying books anyway? You should be borrowing them from the…ah, never mind.
Even if everyone had access to the internet, there’s a real problem with not having access to a bricks-and-mortar bookstore. It’s the same problem with not being able to browse the stacks at your research library on campus. It’s the loss of serendipity, the loss of the chance to run across something you never would have thought of buying if you hadn’t just seen it lying there on the bookshelf, or next to the sought-after book you finally located.
I went to the Borders in Chestnut Hill today with a sense of guilt, because I knew I was picking at the bones of a very well picked-over carcass, but I couldn’t help myself. The aroma of fresh cheap books was too strong. I didn’t go looking for anything in particular. I resolved to just wander areas of the store that interested me and look at the shelves, and pick up titles that seemed interesting. Here’s what I bought, before my basket got so heavy I became a bit worried about even the sale price and forced myself to leave. I didn’t even make it to several sections I wanted to browse.
From the poetry shelf:
A hardback copy of the complete works of Emily Dickinson
Poems from the Women’s Movement ed. by Honor Moore
From the nonfiction shelf:
Payback by Margaret Atwood
Best American Essays: 2008 edited by Adam Gopnik
Best American Essays: 2006 edited by Lauren Slater
50 Essays: A Portable Anthology
From the fiction shelf:
Rubyfruit Jungle by Rita Mae Brown (I am long overdue to read this)
Garden Spells by Sarah Addison
The Proof of the Honey by Salwa Al Neimi
From the science shelf:
The Alchemy of Air by Thomas Hager
Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths about Science and Religion ed. by Ronald L. Numbers
Catching Fire by Richard Wrangham
From the critters shelf:
Caterpillars of Eastern North America by David L. Wagner
Birds of Pennsylvania by Haas & Burrows
The Bird: A Natural History of Who Birds Are, Where They Came From, and How They Live, by Colin Tudge
The Backyard Bird Lovers Guide by Sally Roth
Two of the fiction books and the critters books are probably the most unusual purchases for me. I bought them solely because I was browsing around and they caught my eye – interesting cover made me look more, or title caught my eye, or I thought, huh, I really should know more about caterpillars if I am going to seriously try gardening more with native plants. It never would have occurred to me to look for a book on caterpillars, online or elsewhere. The Galileo book was a happy find – it fits with a recent developing interest of mine in a particular area of history of science, and looked like it would be fun to read. I love Atwood as a novelist but had never heard of her slim volume of collected Massey lectures.
I don’t want to live in a world of Laredos, bookstore-free towns and cities where browsing the shelves is a lost art and forgotten memory. Shall we all spend our time peering intently into our small blue screens, happy to order what Amazon has recommended and Kindle will display?
In the small town where my dad grew up and my dear Aunt Betty lives, there is a beautiful old building that a young couple has moved into and turned into a used bookstore. The actual store, alas, is rarely open. Most of their sales come from online – naturally.
But one of these days we’ll all be out of electricity, or it’s going to be rationed, or horribly expensive – right Sharon? Then our Kindles won’t work anymore , or we’ll have to put them aside. I’m hoarding my books against that future. If nothing else, we can burn them for heat when all the trees are gone, or use them for toilet paper. Try wiping your ass with a Kindle and see how far that gets you.