Shane Jones, Borders, and Book Culture

Novelist Shane Jones has an article about Borders in Salon (thanks to The Passive Voice for the link). It’s about how much he liked Borders as a book-centric hangout and workplace, how he met and fell in love with his wife there, and how the company floundered as sales began falling in the mid-aughts. Jones sadly wonders, at the end, whether bookstores will still exist when his unborn child comes of age.

You know, I don’t think they will. With a few exceptions for used books, kids’ books, and niche markets, I don’t see how dedicated brick-and-mortar bookstores can compete. I can foresee a time in the not too distant future when paper books are sold 1) online, perhaps increasingly through POD, or 2) in mass quantities at supermarkets and Walmarts, if they happen to be mega-sellers.

And yeah, that does make me a bit sad. I worked at a Borders in 1999. It was a great experience. I was never one of those folks who hated the big-box bookstores for driving the little guys out of business. To me, being able to walk into a huge bookstore and be pretty darn sure I was going to walk out with just the book I wanted was heaven on earth. Borders epitomized that. Not only did it have a ton of literary fiction, but it also had a deep selection of theory and philosophy — one of the sections I shelved — and a whole lot of poetry. Not many people bought those books, but they were there anyway. It felt like Borders was standing up for them.

I remember this one time when a middle-aged guy came storming up to the customer service counter and demanded to see a manager. The manager arrived, and the guy started yelling at him about the sexy gay book his (clearly unsupervised) little boy had picked up in the erotica section. I remember the guy, all red in the face, waving the book around and shouting, “You call yourselves a family bookstore, and you stock this filth?!” And the manager, cool as a cucumber, said, “Borders isn’t a ‘family’ bookstore. We serve the whole community. The whole community.” It was awesome. The people who worked there were terrific. That was a good place.

In the end, Borders died by its own sword: it beat the little guys by making exactly the book you wanted available immediately for a low price while providing hundreds of other titles to browse … and you could do it while drinking a latte. Then Amazon came along and did the same thing better … and you could do it without leaving home.

Yeah, it does make me sad. But let’s not forget that the rich book culture Jones talks about in his piece hasn’t disappeared. It’s moved. It’s on Goodreads and Facebook and the Amazon forums and authors’ websites and countless other places. Book-lovers will always find “places” to congregate. They’ll always build networks.

Is it the same? No, not really. But in some ways it’s better. A bookstore could never provide what I’ve found on Goodreads — a worldwide community of urban-fantasy readers. And of course, Borders never would’ve stocked my book. That book culture was far less open and inclusive than the one we have now.

That’s not to say the end of the bookstore doesn’t entail real losses — just that how the gains and losses balance out probably depends on who you are and what you’re looking for.