As far as massive bookstore empires go, I have always been a Barnes & Noble fan. When I was little, I would beg my mom for a B&N visit at the end of a long day of downtown shopping. Once inside my favorite chain bookstore, I would run to the sci-fi and fantasy section and bury myself in the latest Star Wars novelization. The schmaltzy classical music, the faux-lithograph portraits of famous authors, and muted beige and green décor were all irrelevant to the eight-year-old me. I was there simply to read.
As I grew older and the Borders palaces got bigger, I dropped the Star Wars comics and learned to develop that snobbish appreciation for the struggling Mom-and-Pop bookshops that hipsters and all future English professors share. While living in Los Angeles, I discovered a gaggle of these cozy grassroots establishments, Skylight Books and Book Soup among them. These dynamic, exciting shops, with their handwritten reading recommendations from staff and in-store readings, entranced me. The big bookstores seemed impersonal, cold, sterile by comparison. I didn’t once look back on my days of mainstream B&N bliss—until I heard that that these less-than-gentle giants of the book world were under threat.
It always seemed like these Goliath bookstores would last forever; along with Starbucks, a Borders or Barnes & Noble seem to exist in every town. But over the last few months, both book companies have taken a tumble. First, we read in early December that Borders planned to take over Barnes & Noble, its troubled cousin. Not a big deal, even to a former B&N loyalist like me—what’s one big bookstore buying out another?
But in January of this year, Borders experienced its own financial troubles, delaying the payment of book publishers and withholding holiday sales information. Despite the insistence of higher-ups that all is well, the numbers don’t lie: the profits of Borders and Barnes & Noble seem tiny in comparison to the sales of Amazon and digital books.
It would appear that the impending fall of Borders and Barnes & Noble is a victory for the corner bookstore and local library, but—with book sales as they are—the victory could be a hollow one. The Los Angeles Times recently did a series on the future of reading, revealing a world of hope for some and despair for others. Electronic books may make rare texts available to the world and allow us to pack dozens of books in our carry-on bags, but they are also single-handedly responsible for the decline of print publishing. As Borders and B&N outlets across the country draw their shutters, I can’t help but wonder if the small shops will be able to fight the Kindle on their own.
With the book in jeopardy, I am reminded of my youthful mindset from all those years ago, of a time when it didn’t matter how ‘corporate’ the setting was. The print, the rustle and mellow scent of the pages, the weight of a book in my hands were all that mattered to me. As long as there are places selling books instead of Kindles, books will continue to matter. But how long can booksellers, of any size, survive?
In the final weeks of the Borders and Barnes & Noble in my hometown, I visited each, wandering around with less of a bargain-hunting impulse and more a sense of nostalgia. Surrounded by red and hornet-yellow markdown tags, I couldn’t help but feel I wasn’t witnessing the death of a bookstore, but the slow, succumbing death of the book itself.