I remember thinking as a kid that I could easily live uninterrupted and happy in a Barnes and Noble. It didn’t register with me at the time that the big bookseller I loved made life that much more difficult for the independent bookseller in my hometown. I was simply in love with the dark wood, comfy seats, enticing aroma of coffee, the invitation to stay awhile amongst a backdrop of more books than I could possibly read in a lifetime. It was like a library, but better: any one of the books could be mine to take home, put on my shelf and enjoy indefinitely.
When I went to college and found myself living in a community that featured both Barnes and Noble and Borders, I should have been thrilled. Unfortunately for my twelve-year-old self, I found I didn’t have the money to indulge — I didn’t even have the money to go window-shopping. During this time I established my still-firm affinity for the used book and my feeling that there was no reason to pay full price for a book just to be the first person to have the privilege of reading that particular copy.
As you probably know, Borders filed for bankruptcy this week and is planning to shutter over 200 stores nationwide. I recently clicked through the interactive map of stores being closed and noted with some relief that “my Borders” is not one slated for closure.
I stepped back for a moment, though, and wondered why I cared. I couldn’t remember the last time I had been in “my Borders,” and I certainly couldn’t remember the last time I’d bought something for myself there. Borders recently sent me an e-mail with a coupon, encouraging me to buy books based on my recent purchases: graphic novels, Stargate on Blu-ray, and an Ubuntu for Linux guide — all gifts for the certain geek in my life. So if I hadn’t been in “my Borders” since Christmas (or possibly Mike’s birthday), why would I care if Borders was still there on my commute, the halfway point between work and home?
I had the same mixed feelings when our Hollywood Video closed. I remember mentioning my remorse to the cashier, saying that I enjoyed wandering through the aisles looking for a movie when I wasn’t sure what I was in the mood to watch, and the cashier said in a very snippy manner, “Well, clearly you haven’t come in often enough. If wandering were that important to you, we wouldn’t be closing.” And it’s true. We have Netflix, we use Redbox — but I still wanted Hollywood Video to be there if I wanted to wander.
And there it is. I don’t want to buy books for full price. I want to be able to shop online where I can see reviews and other information about the book instantaneously. I want to be proud of the good deal I got on a like-new presidential biography. But I want the book store to be there when I want to meander and peruse. I want to feel like a kid when I walk through the door and smell the mingling aroma of printed pages and freshly brewed coffee.
Ultimately, I want other people to shop at the bookstore so it will be there for me when I want it. I know this is an unstable business model, and completely ridiculous on my part. But I also want our daughter to know the joy of walking into a bookstore and seeing it as a world of possibilities. I want her to be able to meander — but I also want her to know that books don’t have to be new to be good.
I recently heard a report on NPR that independent bookstores that are finding ways to integrate digital media into their businesses are actually looking better than the chains right now, and that encourages me. When Mike and I were in San Francisco in August, I asked the concierge at our hotel in Union Square if there were any good local bookstores nearby. The woman replied, with absolutely no trace of irony, “There’s a Borders about three blocks from here.” I thanked her, pulled out Google Maps on my phone, and found Alexander Book Company. I spent a lovely hour or two perusing three floors of overstuffed shelves and I knew that the $30 I spent (on some really great books) was going back to the neighborhood rather than a corporation.
The Borders the concierge recommended is one of the ones that is slated to be closed, and Alexander Book Company is still going strong. Even the twelve-year-old who wanted to live in a Barnes and Noble sees that as a triumph.