July 24, 2011

The rise and fall of the chain bookstore

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at July 24, 2011 3:16 PM

I walked down to Columbus Circle today to shop at Borders for the last time; their going-out-of-business sale was in full swing. This is the second chain bookstore to close in my neighborhood this year, following the Lincoln Center Barnes and Noble in January. I went to that liquidation sale, too.

But I didn't buy much at either sale. These days if I'm going to read a book I buy an electronic copy, because I always have it with me and it doesn't take up any space. I saw a hardcover copy of A Dance with Dragons at Borders and almost laughed. Why carry around such an inconveniently huge tome? I imagined struggling to hold it in one hand on a rush hour subway while hanging on to a pole. (I'll probably see someone doing this before the summer is over, but still...) If I buy physical books it's because they have diagrams or maps that won't render well on a Kindle, or because I'll want to page through them quickly. At Borders today I bought a travel guide for an upcoming vacation, and a kanji dictionary.

I suspect that e-reader adoption isn't widespread enough nationwide to account for the collapse of the chain bookstores. (The Upper West Side may be a different story--I see a lot of Kindles on the 1 train.) There's the fact that books have a lot more competition for attention in the age of DVR, Netflix Instant, MMORPGs, and endless other digital diversions. And when people do buy physical books, they can still go to Amazon and save the sales tax.

I have fond memories of the Borders I used to frequent in Connecticut growing up. When I was young "the bookstore" often just meant the crappy Waldenbooks at the mall, so the huge, well-stocked Borders was a definite improvement. It wasn't until I got to Berkeley that I gained an appreciation for the kind of expertly-curated specialty bookstore whose loss people lamented with the arrival of the chains. The Barnes and Noble in Berkeley closed while I was there; I'd like to say it was because of the vibrant independent bookstore culture, but several of the indie shops were closing too. (Anyone know if The Other Change of Hobbit is still open?)

Meanwhile, here on the Upper West Side we still have the 82nd St Barnes and Noble. If it closes too, I'll definitely miss it, but that's mostly nostalgia. I still shop there on occasion, but even if I find something I might want to read, I usually won't take it to the checkout line. Instead I just pull up the title in the Kindle Store using my phone and send myself the sample chapter. The big bookstores might be going away, but I feel like I've already left them behind.

Tags: Books

In the case of Borders, it was the entire chain that died. All of the UK Borders closed a couple of years ago, and the bell unofficially tolled for Borders a few years ago (well before electronic readers took hold; indeed, when they hardly existed). People have basically been counting the days until they died the way people once camped outside of Liberace's house in the days before his death---it was inevitable, and it was just a matter of when things would become official.

Certainly, electronic readers are continuing, but the big chains were running into big trouble well before then, and Borders in particular was having more trouble than many. (That's one mystery I haven't figured out: What did others do that Borders did not or was it just bad luck? One explanation that I have been given is that the others also had accompanying vibrant online stores.)

I still am kicking it old-school for my reading. However, I could never read on the metro, etc. My motion sickness and ease of being distracted by what is around me is a double killing blow for that.

I actually considered making an RIP Borders blog entry, but after not noticing the news until a few days after it came out, I figured I wouldn't bother. Anyway, it's good that you've brought it up, as then I get to make these comments. :)

Posted by: Mason Porter | July 24, 2011 11:16 PM
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