Just around the corner from my apartment stood two bookstores. Soon, there’ll just be one.
A Barnes & Noble and a Borders actually faced each other on opposite sides of my street for more than a decade. I worked at the B&N for three years. Especially because of the location, customers assumed that a sort of animosity existed between the stores. “You don’t have [insert book title]?” we’d sometimes hear. “Well, I’ll just go across the street to Borders!” They’d forget that the competitive drive is mostly lost on a floor-level employee who isn’t paid commission. Besides, we don’t mind Borders. It’s a bookstore like us, for crying out loud.
We would talk about each new development in the Borders bankruptcy saga and shake our heads. Nobody wanted to see another bookstore disappearing. Not even our management, really: while store sales would increase, it would be a morbid reminder of an unnerving trend.
Granted, that particular Borders was never my bookstore of choice. It’s being located in the mall made its clientele naturally more annoying. Also, it presented itself as more of a media retailer, so in spite of being the second largest bookselling chain in America, it never truly felt like a bookstore to me. So even before I scanned and shelved hardcovers for its competitor across the street, I rarely shopped there.
But with it closing, and me needing the third George R.R. Martin novel, I went to have a look and pay my respects. This weekend Borders was in its 25-to-50%-off throes of liquidation, teeming with customers with only a handful of employees still on the payroll to attend to them. Walking the aisles and squeezing past other shoppers, I couldn’t help feeling like a carrion feeder. I avoided eye contact with the few Borders booksellers left, people who I knew were being cast into a persistently shitty Colorado Springs job market. A few of these employees will get jobs at the Barnes & Noble across the street just in time for the seasonal hiring blip. Many of my B&N coworkers were themselves picked up from McKinzey-White, B. Dalton, and other small bookstores that folded in the area years ago.
McKinzey-White! Come to think of it, my neighborhood used to have three bookstores. Now, even if you count the large used shops, there are only four bookstores in this entire city of over half-a-million people.
Ten years ago, it was ridiculous to think that shopping at a Barnes & Noble — a carnivorous corporate behemoth viewed to glut itself en masse on Mom n’ Pop bookshops — would feel like supporting your neighborhood bookstore. It’s come to that. The digital reading age is of course eliminating the need of the brick-and-mortar store for all but the traditionalists: people who feel an irreplaceable sense of satisfaction when wandering aisles filled with promising volumes that they can tilt down, flip open, peruse, and carry with them to a table to read. But it’s impractical for the existing bookstores to keep the inventory they had before the e-book revolution. The biggies will inevitably downsize, for most of their product is now, well, incorporeal, and it’ll be unnecessary to pay rent and utilities for the same large building spaces as before. Even if a giant like Barnes & Noble continues to grow as a company, the stores themselves will eventually condense into more boutique-style shops over time. In that sense, chains like B&N and Books-A-Million will feel more like homey little bookshops than you ever expected, and yes, there can only be fewer of them.
This is the natural progression of things, I thought while staring at what was left on the Borders shelves. No Storm of Swords — not a copy of Martin there to be found. The atmosphere was overwhelming me, and I left quickly. Until I finally buy an eBook reader, I’m going to have to get used to leaving bookstores empty-handed.
And now, without Borders, many neighborhoods will now no longer have a bookstore.