Bye-Bye Bookstores

As much as the books I read, they fired in me the desire to read, creating an electric sense of ‘midst’ that no one book in the hand ever could by itself.

The printed book—so we are assured by publishers and e-book mavens—is not going to disappear any time soon. It may already be giving up its long uncontested dominance, some of its cultural centrality, but these optimally designed artifacts will continue to park on shelves and unfold in laps for some time to come.

What is disappearing, with the speed of ink drying on a folio leaf, is the public profile of books, our sense of their literal and symbolic presence. We have all seen what is happening to libraries, as increasing numbers of them put their funds to digital use, moving books up, up and away from what used to be the central ports of access—the reading rooms—to make more room for monitors.

Bookstores have been the other great bulwark. In recent decades, megastores like Borders and Barnes & Noble drove out the old independents in droves, and then parked themselves like illuminated ocean liners in downtown intersections and malls in every corner of the land. We’ve known for some time now that online bookselling has taken over market share, but so long as these abundantly stocked emporia remained, it was possible to give our book culture a public face. It occupied substantial real estate; thus it was substantially real.

Now comes the news that Barnes & Noble is putting itself up for sale. The reason? The nation’s leading book retailer and its stock are getting hammered by the rapid transformation of the marketplace—bits & bytes supplanting bricks & boards. A look at profit-earnings charts from Barnes & Noble and Amazon over a five-year period reveals reversed mirror-images, with Amazon predictably ascendant. No one doubted that the process was underway, but no one seemed to reckon on the speed.

One hesitates to jump to the direst conclusions. It may be that the giant finds a buyer, adopts aggressive new strategies, trims outlets, survives. Stranger things have happened. But it’s hard not to imagine the not-all-that-futurist scenario of a country that has books but no bookstores, libraries but no readers in evidence.

But wait! What about those boxed-out independents? Might this not be a perfect occasion for a revival of those repressed, smartly stocked shops?

Many of us—and I speak as a former bookseller, one who worked at the first Borders long before empire was a gleam in the owners’ eyes—would deem this the sweetest recouping of psychological losses incurred by the triumph of Goliath. Finally, a return to indie roots; a rededication to human idiosyncracy!

Alas, I don’t think it will happen. Not only because books are rapidly changing their status as products, ceding primacy to electronic files, but because the idea of the independent bookstore has been tagged in the public mind as quaint, as retro. Book emporia have been banished to the margins. Of cities and towns: condemned to low-rent thrift store-like venues. Of people’s awareness: they have a sepia-tinge of then about them already.

This grieves me. This is a loss far bigger than a loss of a particular kind of access to books. It marks the effective removal of what is finally a symbolic representation. Less and less will it seem right and natural, expected and desirable, that people should gather in appealing public spaces for the sole purpose of catering to, and perhaps flaunting, their mental (their inner) lives. Less and less is it already happening that this thread unexpectedly leads to that with the counter clerk, or even another customer, suddenly blurting, “Oh, if you haven’t read—” That species of retail adventure is already being replaced by preference algorithms: the Pandorification of America.

I cut my own book teeth in the early 1960s as a slow-motion aisle trawler at a shop called Readmore Books in Birmingham, Mich. A decade later I worked at that first Borders, and then put in more years—the years of my intellectual coming of age—co-managing a used-and-rare bookshop in Ann Arbor, then working for the legendary George Gloss at the Brattle Bookshop in downtown Boston, billed as “the nation’s oldest continuously owned antiquarian book store.” Next came a dead-end stint in the basement of Leonard Riggio’s Barnes & Noble down the street, before a promotion across the Charles to work at the Harvard Book Store.

Employments aside, I am sure I have put as many years standing in aisles as I have in classrooms. Those aisles have been the start of any meaningful intellectual trail I ever followed. As much as the books I read, they fired in me the desire to read—creating an electric sense of “midst” that no one book in the hand ever could by itself—and then, to write, the fantasy being that I might some day become part of that force-field. That my words, stored between covers, would add to that particular sense of potentiality that I have only ever encountered in the physical spaces of bookstores.

Mr. Birkerts is the author of eight books, including “The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age” (Faber and Faber, 2006).

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