Monday, February 28, 2011

Death of a Bookstore


Recently I went to a Borders Bookstore in San Francisco for its going-out-of-business sale. I thought I would feel sorry for the place, but ultimately I didn’t. I’d expected to see Borders as the good guy in a Amazon-vs.-bookstore battle, but instead left the store thinking “good riddance.”

Amazon has always been a threat to traditional bookstores, and their Kindle e-reader has increased this threat. In this post I’ll start off explaining why I want to hate the Kindle. Then I’ll discuss my trip to Borders and why I think the chain deserves to die. If I have any energy left I’ll offer up some hopeful denial that bookstores—that is, true bookstores—will go extinct.

Why I want to hate the Kindle

I don’t hate the Kindle. I can’t hate it as a product, as I’ve never actually used one. You could argue that I should really try one out—not just play with the demo model at Target, which I have done, but should read an entire e-book—before I develop my opinion. Giving it a good try seems logical enough, but then, you could say the same thing for cigarettes.

I’m sure there are scores of happy Kindle users who would love to give me a demo. I don’t want a demo. There’s something evangelical about how people tout modern electronic devices (not just e-readers but smartphones, the iPad, etc.), and where the Kindle is concerned people can be downright apocalyptic. Consider this reader comment attached to a “Wall Street Journal” article about the demise of Borders: “Any prediction on when will Amazon only offer e-pub and drop the entire dead tree format from its lineup?” (That guy must feel really cool throwing around terms like “e-pub” and “dead tree format.”) In response, another commenter predicted that paper books would be dropped within ten years, to which the first guy replied, “10 years. That’s pretty pessimistic. How about one to two years.”

And why is ten years “pessimistic”—what does this guy have against paper books? Is it a desire to preserve our forests? I doubt it. I think the guy somehow associates himself with a sweeping societal change, and takes pride in his contribution to the success of a disruptive technology. (It’s a bit like feeling really proud when your local sports team wins a game, even though you yourself have nothing to do with the team or its victory.)

No, I’m not going to do battle with those who gleefully predict the Kindle’s eventual dominance. But in case you’re on the fence, here’s my top ten list of Why I Want to Hate the Kindle:

  1. Nobody on the Bart train is going to ogle my book.
  2. I can loan out my book and not have to worry about getting it back.
  3. I can leave my book in the bathroom and not worry about it being ruined.
  4. I have nice bookshelves full of handsome books that don’t deserve to be upstaged by a high-tech gizmo that pollutes my reading experience with the gaudy culture of PCs, cell phones, and the Internet.
  5. If I end up loving the Kindle, embracing its format, and becoming addicted to its convenience and cool features, my literary world will shrink from “anything any library or bookstore anywhere has” down to “anything that’s available on the Kindle.”
  6. I can’t buy used titles at great discount for a Kindle.
  7. Reading in bed is somehow not antisocial. Bringing an electronic device to bed is.
  8. My books don’t become obsolete, leading me to regret that I don’t have 50% better contrast, a 21% smaller form factor, double the storage, crisper and darker fonts, and better battery life, all available on a newer device than my primitive early version.
  9. I fight with PCs and other electronic devices all day, and books are my respite. I don’t care how foolproof the Kindle claims to be: it has an OS that can have bugs, and it has WiFi of which I can be out of range, and it has a battery that can die … all potential headaches.
  10. The name ... Kindle. Shades of Fahrenheit 451. Creepy.

My trip to Borders

So: back to books, and bookstores. I started off going to the wrong Borders, along the Embarcadero, which had already folded. It’s always a bit startling, and then disquieting, to see a business all boarded up like that. I have to say, I felt a little guilty for my role in the store’s demise; after all, I buy a fair number of books from Amazon. I headed over to the other Borders, in the San Francisco Shopping Centre. It was still open, and had its huge sale signs everywhere. As soon as I got in there my guilt evaporated. I’ve actually never liked this place, and the sale wasn’t changing my mind.

I guess I’d expected to see a certain amount of disarray and the sad signs of a business in turmoil. But the sale itself was marketed and packaged with a certain slickness; giant placards had been printed declaring “HUGE SAVINGS! ENTIRE STORE! LIMITED EXCEPTIONS APPLY. Always the fine print. And the “huge savings” amounted to 20% off, making the place merely overpriced rather than hugely overpriced. They seemed well dug-in to enjoy a very long sale with healthy margins. They’re probably continuing to restock at this point. Who knows, maybe if the sale is successful enough, they’ll take the signs down and stay in business.

Meanwhile, I couldn’t find anything I really wanted to buy. I was hoping to get some books for my kids, but there was actually no children’s section. They had a “Young Adult” section (which should be called the “dumb adult” section because so many shameless grown-ups read such books due to lack of intellectual mettle), and they had a Manga section, and they had a section for toddlers that was mostly toys—but no actual children’s books.

My family is pondering a trip to the UK this summer, so I checked out the travel section. More than half of this section was for “local travel,” and they had some cutesy name for this. (To try to recall the cutesy name, I looked for the equivalent section at Borders online—but in vain. Borders has no online travel section online at all, and I think it’s worth pointing out that when I searched on “travel” on their site, the top three hits were a WWII history book; Eat, Pray, Love; and The CalorieKing Calorie, Fat & Carbohydrate Counter 2011.) The Borders in-store travel collection did have a California section, a small travel memoir section, and then little corner devoted to England & Ireland. Italy was half a shelf at the bottom.

The Literature section was towards the back. More prominent was the Romance section, with a poster announcing “A romance for every mood!” I had to wonder what this was about. Could I collar an employee and say, “Look, I’m just royally pissed off right now, like I just want to punch something, and I’m wondering if you could recommend a particular romance for me to read while the feeling lasts.”

There was also a big Games section. I did find a game I was interested in (“You’ve Been Sentenced”) but at 20% off it was still pretty expensive. I decided if it was only somewhat more expensive here than on Amazon, I’d buy it. So I fired up the browser in my smartphone to check Amazon’s price, only to find I had no signal, despite Borders offering free Wi-Fi at this location. (I’m sure they jam the signal in the stacks. Borders wasn’t born yesterday, you know.)

There was a huge magazine section, a sizeable music section, and a large cookbook section (reasonable to find at a newsstand, a record store, and a cooking store, respectively). There was a giant display of vampire books. They also sold “gifts,” which I would describe as “something of dubious worth which you wouldn’t buy for yourself, but which you might buy as a gift for somebody you don’t know very well.” Then, up by the front, they were selling candy, just like at the grocery store or Office Depot. In short, this wasn’t really a bookstore as I’d like to define it. It was more like what Amazon would be if it were a brick-and-mortar store instead of an online entity.

Could you get good advice from a staffer at Borders? I understand that the original Borders bookstore was a small used-book operation in Ann Arbor run by a couple of brothers, and known for having a very helpful staff. But I’ve never felt like asking for advice in a books-et-cetera superstore like this. (When I have asked for help in such places, the response was like when you ask a waiter for a suggestion and he says, “Oh, I don’t eat the food here.”) I should point out that as I stood in line at checkout, the teenaged cashier did take some time to give another customer detailed directions on how to get to the Stonestown Galleria mall.

Ultimately, I don’t think Borders failed because electronic publishing and online retail leviathans like Amazon replaced brick-and-mortar stores; I think Borders failed because it tried to be a leviathan but its executives didn’t really know what they were doing. If the chain had succeeded instead of failed, it probably would have crushed out more independent bookstores in the process of continuing to change bookstores into something I barely recognize.

What is a bookstore?

What is a bookstore? Of course it’s not really for me to say, but I know what I like. To me, a physical bookstore shouldn’t be like Amazon, offering everything under the sun. In a way a bookstore should be more like the original Google—that is, a search engine whose primary purpose is weeding out all the crap I’m not looking for, to give me a manageable browsing experience. Actually, a good bookstore is more like a search engine with the best searches already keyed in: that is, a place where people who love literature have stocked the place with only the good stuff.

In the mid-‘90s when I lived in San Francisco, I frequented a North Beach bookstore called Columbus Books, on Broadway near the strip joints. This was an unlikely location for a small independent bookstore, as it was just around the corner from the famous City Lights Books and a few doors down from Big Al’s Adult Book Store. Thus, it had to face high rents along with serious competition from both ends of the literary spectrum. I don’t know when it folded (sometime after I moved to the East Bay), but its demise doesn’t worry me particularly, as there was something quixotic about its existence to begin with.

That bookstore was just chock-full of great books, many (if not most) of them used. Sometimes the used books were in eerily good condition. I found a used but pristine copy of a George Saunders book that had just come out, and had to ask the clerk if there was a mistake. “We probably bought it from a paid reviewer,” he explained. “The jerk probably never even read it.” It may be that Columbus Books wouldn’t pay anything for a used book they didn’t want to sell it in their store, and they took evident care in picking out what new books to carry. The staff would put their favorites up on the top of the bookshelves, cover facing out. Once, as a stunt, I decided to pluck a book absolutely at random from a shelf, give it only the most cursory glance, and then buy it. The book I snagged was a hardback, used but in great shape, and cheap. I liked the title, and I liked the cover:

I’d never heard of the author, but he passed the first-page test with flying colors and the book went on to be a glorious one. Just like that, I was turned on to a great writer.

Was the staff at Columbus Books helpful? Yes. One particular instance comes to mind. My wife sent me to find a book called Eight Bald Chicks that her book club had chosen. I had no idea who wrote it, and this was before Amazon or Google had really gotten going, so I the bookstore staff was my only hope. The clerk had never heard of it, but—and this is the important thing—it obviously bothered him that he hadn’t heard of it. He asked what it was about, and I said, “I dunno, I think it’s some feminist thing.” He scratched his head and said, “Ah! I know! You’re looking for 8 Ball Chicks! (They did have it.)

You wouldn’t want the waiters at your steakhouse to be vegans, would you? Why shouldn’t bookstore clerks be bibliophiles? I’ve talked to clerks at two different Berkeley bookstores who knew Jonathan Lethem personally. Knew him from where? They worked with him, of course. At the bookstore.

It’s the network

Amazon makes a pretty big deal (and a good deal of money) from its ability to mine the data it accumulates as customers buy stuff. Their algorithm looks at what’s in my shopping cart or my recent search history, and recommends other things I might like. For example, if I’m looking at a Radiohead album, it’ll see that other customers who bought Radiohead also bought Coldplay, and will recommend Coldplay. The system sometimes works pretty well (I did in fact get turned on to Coldplay this way, though they’re no Radiohead). The algorithm has its glitches, though. When I looked up the rock band Cake in Amazon’s Music section, their algorithm reasonably recommended Cake’s new album “Showroom of Compassion” but also recommended a book, Rose’s Heavenly Cakes, and a Wilton 13 Inch Angled Spatula with Black Handle.

What isn’t widely acknowledged, at least by the gadget freaks, is that a good bookstore—and especially a good used bookstore—offers something better than Amazon’s algorithm: a community of diehard readers of actual literature. When a bookstore caters to the kind of people who actually read books, thick ones, even ones by old dead writers, it creates the perfect environment for somebody like me. If you got to a top-notch bookstore like Moe’s Books in Berkeley, you’ll find all kinds of good new books, without having to push aside folderol like The CalorieKing Calorie, Fat & Carbohydrate Counter 2011, and you’ll find all kinds of good used books sold back to Moe’s by customers like yourself who have finished reading them. At a chain store, you’re offered what the corporate folks think will sell to a wide audience, but at Moe’s the used section is stocked, in effect, by Berkeley people who love literature.

When I was an English major in college, I went for over a year mindlessly buying my books from the student bookstore, which meant paying three times the cover price for a hammered old paperback edition of, say, Portrait of a Lady—a book that Moe’s probably has a dozen copies of. Then I realized, hey, wait a second, I’m not trying to find a relatively obscure physics textbook written by my professor; I could find any of these books at Moe’s! Once I started buying all my books there, I realized how deep Moe’s selection went. Looking for, say, Crime and Punishment, I had my choice of new vs. used, hardback vs. paperback, and three different translations. I could choose between really cheap for a tattered copy, cheap for a decent one, and full price for a pristine one. One of my favorite books is an old hardback copy of The Scarlet Letter, printed in 1935, that I bought at Moe’s for $7 twenty years ago.

Am I elitist? Not really—after all, I shop at places like Target, too. I just can’t mourn a bookstore chain that becomes too much like Target by trying to attract people who don’t much like to read.


I believe that the demise of independent bookstores, and of books in general, is greatly exaggerated. After all, just when MP3-loving Internet bloviators declared the CD dead, vinyl made a comeback. The Internet is a great tool for prognosticators, but I’m sure a lot of bookworm-types can’t be bothered to make their dissenting voices heard. Lots of traditional English-major types like me will always prefer paper books. And all the books already out there aren’t going to just cease to exist (unless there’s a giant bonfire or something) and will continue making their happy rounds of the used bookstores. I’m sure Moe’s will never be the next Amazon, but I think small bookstores will always be around to serve their niche.

dana albert blog

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