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.

i-dcdd9d0c3c6534431b757711c4e1bb97-Borders-thumb-130x80-39347.jpgAnd 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.

More like this

You don't understand. This is the best possible thing for American society -- without all of those books, we can spend more time reading the only Book that matters: the Holy Bible.

Give us another generation and all of the others will be illegal anyway.

By D. C. Sessions (not verified) on 13 Jan 2010 #permalink

We have a small independent bookstore in our town center, and while I love it, I do not know what its business model should be. If I buy books on-line, I can make big savings not just from the volume discounts but also from the lack of sales tax. The fact that on-line sellers are exempted from sales tax is a scandal.

To survive, B&M stores need to organize themselves together so they can compete with the big on-line sellers. Here's a service they could provide: the ability to browse on-line, then go and pick up the books in the stores. This includes books that are not currently in stock but the store could get in stock within 24 hours from their distributor. In fact this model long-term makes better sense than the UPS delivery model, since rising energy costs will make the latter unsustainable eventually.

Serendipity is a compelling argument for while we would like B&M stores to survive, but on its own is not enough to ensure feasibility. I think these B&M stores will have to rethink themselves as social centers, not just a coffee bar, but readings, supporting local book clubs, etc. Becoming an essential part of the local community has got to be part of the path to survival for these stores.

But on-line inventory (including inventory not in stock but deliverable in a short period to the store) is also an essential aspect of this. The key to Amazon's success has been catering to long-tail tastes rather than just the latest bestsellers, and B&M stores cannot stock all the long tail stuff and stay in business. Getting this right is going to take cooperation between the B&M stores, including independent bookstores, and the publishers. So far there is no sign of any leadership from anyone, even while the Kindle tsunami is gathering force far out at sea.

You couple what is happening with B&M bookstores, with what Google is doing to author rights, and the future is looking rather grim for books.

It's a sad thing when something like this happens. I find Taylor's suggestions in this comments section most valuable, for there is nothing that some ingenious thought can't workout. Reading sessions, local authors promoting their works - even if not published, yet - book clubs, faster book exposition cycles, electronic search and preview - hey, Google isn't your enemy after all - and, of course, the children, because they are the readers of tomorrow, and all the other things that the Amazon's of this world cannot provide for, namely, the 'taste' and experience of a physical book.

ps: what's the url of that bookstore in the town where your "dear Aunt Betty lives?"

I fully agree that serendipity is an important part of the bookstore experience. Amazon.com is an excellent place to look when you already have a good idea of what you are looking for. But when you are just looking for something, and you're not sure what, there is no substitute for actually going to a bookstore and looking at physical books. There are several authors I have discovered by seeing their books for sale in a bookstore: Terry Pratchett and Murakami, to name two. Perhaps my biggest serendipitous find was a collection of 1950s Pogo cartoons, sitting among the collections of more modern cartoons. Amazon would have been happy to sell me another Doonesbury or Dilbert or (god forbid) Garfield collection, but the idea that I could obtain some classic Pogo would not have occurred to me.

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 14 Jan 2010 #permalink

I live in Cambridge, MA, which used to be one of the great bookstore centers, but in the last 10-15 years, dozens (and I do mean dozens) of stores have closed, only a few remain. Online sales a part of the story, but the independent bookstores were in trouble even before that--increasing rents and the rise of the chain superstore drove many out even before Amazon came along. Borders made its own problems--their financial management was less than stellar. I have to admit, my own book-buying habits have changed significantly over the years--cookbooks are practically the only new books I'll make room for in the house now.

@Moopheus: funny you mention Cambridge; I moved to Waltham, MA, and have been charmed and made very happy with the local bookstores I've found in the area.

Then again, I moved from a town in Florida that had only a "bookstore" that focused more on religious knick-knacks and various "cute" items than on books. And that had people protesting each release of "Harry Potter". *headdesk*

A huge swath of America doesn't read anything more than a copy of People (god forbid) at the doctor's office. Which, when you think about it, totally explains the rampant stupidity in the country.

By OleanderTea (not verified) on 14 Jan 2010 #permalink

Prairie Avenue Bookshop, in Chicago. The finest collection of art, architecture and design books. Beautifully furnished with prairie style desks and chairs. I'm from New York, but this is the store I most miss.

Laredo? Well, beat the drums slowly and play the fifes lowly ...

I've often wondered if bookstores would split into hoi-polloi and illuminati branches. I see the science/math/engineering sections of shops shrink while they stock more garbage like creationist books and just plain loony stuff from folks like Rupert Sheldrake, and yet in our modern society it is impossible to do without the educational books. Or is our future really online? What do people do when there are no bookshops around and no decent libraries? Watch more of that mind addling crap on TV and in the movies?

By MadScientist (not verified) on 14 Jan 2010 #permalink

And I thought I had it bad, when I have to pay $1 (NZ) for each book I request from the library (either requesting from another library within the city to my local one, or requesting a popular book that is never in be held for me). No libraries? That is truly madness.

By Katherine (not verified) on 14 Jan 2010 #permalink

One of my favorite used bookstores in Lansing was a rather sad story. The gent who opened it, wanted to open it because he wanted to have something interesting and enjoyable to do in his retirement and so he could retire. He was doing ok, but when push came to shove, he wasn't making enough to bring the income and justify keeping the storefront - the latter being the whole point of the venture. But more than ninety percent of his sales were online and the customers who came into the store were generally only coming to chat with him and each other.

So now he is in the basement of The Michigan Store" in downtown Lansing, with a few shelves in the storefront housing his truly awesome MI history section. And his retirement job is not any better than the job he retired from to do this.

You should see the Elvis cutout book I bought at Rodney's on Central Square (which is not really a square-Cambridge MA classifies interesections as squares)Really entertaining.Then try its Dale Chihuly glass book on sale for only 7 dollars i believe.--The most fascinating bookstore in the Boston area.
Sol Biderman

Gainesville, FL, is in process of losing its longest-established independent bookstore. (Irony alert: in the most progressive town for hundreds of miles around, that store is/was named "Goering's" (no relation to Big Herman).)

Thoroughly depressing, to see the empty shelves and the staff's striving to maintain a positive demeanor - but we all knew it was coming for a long time.

By Pierce R. Butler (not verified) on 15 Jan 2010 #permalink

I think the idea of the homeless, destitute man who faithfully goes by the local library for regular reading material is a liberal fantasy. Also, in reality, people who can't afford ANY Internet connection are living so far out in the sticks that it's not feasible to bring Internet out to them. FREAKING MOVE ALREADY!! If you want big city conveniences, move to the big city. Don't sit on your butt 50 miles from the nearest paved road and whine about how rural people are oppressed and don't get services.

This really is the same thing as everything else that the big online sellers have muscled their way into - the comic book and many other collectible markets have been virtually crushed by Ebay, I watched my favorite game and comic store wither and die back in 2002 because people would come browse the shelves, then find what they were looking for, then go find it online for slightly less. Those darn interwebs make it easy to cut out the middleman, which is the brick and mortar stores that we enjoy going to, but not neccessarily buy from.

By Praetorianstalker (not verified) on 15 Jan 2010 #permalink

Umm Gary? I rather hate calling jackass to people I don't know, on blogs I rarely frequent, but go screw - seriously, just - go - screw.

Not everybody has the money to afford the internet. Nor does everyone have the money to afford a decent computer. Before I went back to school, I was using a ten year old laptop that I had to haul to the library for the internet service. Most of my neighbors at that point didn't have computers - or if they did, they were using something very old and likely had dial up. You might want claim that at least that is something, but keep in mind your average Amazon page takes about eight minutes to load with dialup. Possibly not with newer computers, but when you are surfing with 256mb of memory, that's about what it takes.

Of course that assumes you can afford to buy a damned book in the first place.

A lot of us use the library, because we really can't afford to buy a lot of books, or afford to buy our kids a lot of books. Libraries make a wonderful option for those of us who still happen to have them. And yes, a lot of us who live in poverty do depend on the library for reading material, fuck you very much. That I happen to be transitioning out of that myself, doesn't mean that libraries are any less important - I still use mine quite a bit, though not three to four times a week with the boys, like I used to.

And for the record, a lot of people who do have other options use the libraries too. Libraries are a pretty critical part of every community I have ever lived in.

Please feel free to take your privilege and shove it up there with your head.

It's bad for bookshops everywhere. The Borders chain in the UK went broke before Xmas. It breaks my heart every time I pass the huge store they had near my home in Leicester. The empty shelves look so sad, as my 9 yr old daughter put it.

The thing that I think depresses me most about this discussion, is that we are mourning the loss of massive chain bookstores. It was nearly ten years ago that I remember cursing Borders and Barnes & Noble, for driving our local independent bookstore out of business. I loved them because I knew the owners of the stores (they had two locations) and because they turned a blind eye to my surreptitiously borrowing novels in a series that the library couldn't carry because they got stolen. I always brought them back, still in perfect condition.

And I absolutely loved just hanging out in there, reading or exploring new authors. While I loved doing the same thing in the library, there was an added dimension of actually being able to talk to people as I whiled about the hours (mostly in scifi and fantasy). I even did that occasionally at the library, but there were just more people to talk to in the bookstore at a given moment. It was exciting to have adults actually taking my opinions about books seriously - often making purchases based on our discussions. Had things gone differently in my life, the couple that owned the stores would have been thrilled to hire me when I was old enough. As it was, I have very enjoyable discussions with the wife, who was a total fantasy geek.

Then Borders came to town and actually bought them out. They took over one of the locations and paid them to close the other - making it clear that they were unlikely to survive, especially if Barnes and Noble also came to town. About the only good thing to say about it, was that Borders actually gave them a very nice deal - better than slowly being throttled out of business would have done for them and more.

It is all rather fucking depressing. I really can't wait to get back to Portland and the security of Powell's - a large enough market, that they will probably be around forever. Though it isn't too bad here. I think we will have physical bookstores for a while - including used book storefronts and we have one hell of a library system for a city this size.

Thanks a lot!

The opening paragraph of the welcome page reminds me of 84, Charing Cross Road. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/84_Charing_Cross_Road

The "Old Neptune's Bookshop", a thematic bookshop about 'all things sea' - with a seaside location plus, is another good idea that can revamp the bookshop business by focusing on certain niche markets not fully explored elsewhere.

I'm going anonymous for this one...

Zuska, that particular Borders has a special place in my heart. I live in Philly, but had never been to that area until I ended up getting my engagement ring custom-made down the street. One of my favorite memories is of picking up the ring with my new fiancee, eating lunch at the lovely Italian restaurant across the street from the Borders, and then spending the rest of the afternoon browsing and buying books.

By anonymuse (not verified) on 22 Jan 2010 #permalink

America is becoming a sub-literate nation. Most people do not read. Christopher Hedges says it best:

There are over 42 million American adults, 20 percent of whom hold high school diplomas, who cannot read, as well as the 50 million who read at a fourth- or fifth-grade level. Nearly a third of the nationâs population is illiterate or barely literate. And their numbers are growing by an estimated 2 million a year. But even those who are supposedly literate retreat in huge numbers into this image-based existence. A third of high school graduates, along with 42 percent of college graduates, never read a book after they finish school. Eighty percent of the families in the United States last year did not buy a book.

His book Empire of Illusion paints a dismal picture for the future of literacy in America, which means even more bookstore closings.

... meanwhile, the chinese are escalating the development ladder propelled by their focus and self-discipline (aka slavery, as in under payed) attitude - it´s japanease deja vu; talking of deja-vu, in ancient rome, the romans were becoming fat and leisy while the barbarians were at the city's gates. Beware America, or you could be next...