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.

11 thoughts on “Shane Jones, Borders, and Book Culture

  1. I really liked your Borders anecdotes, I love bookshops but have to confess that I’ve rarely enjoyed the disposable income in my adult life to enjoy buying books in them at full price. I wish I did! If I made enough money as a writer I would go out of my way to do that! The internet has changed the face of so much for better and worse, but you know what I miss? I miss travelling on buses and trains and being able to see what people are reading at a glance. The decline of print and the decline of bookshops have kind of robbed us of conversation starters in a way.

    When my novel comes out I am pushing it in eBooks form worldwide, logistically it’s feasible unlike self-published print distribution, but I would dearly love to see it sold in a bookshop. That was my childhood dream and I’d still like to see it come true.

    • I know what you mean about the expense of new paper books! In fact, that was one great motivation for working at Borders (employee discount).

      Yeah, you do lose things when you use an ereader instead of paper. I wonder if one day we’ll have an ebook that actually looks like a book, complete with a cover and e-ink pages, and when you choose to read a particular book, it just “fills in” the cover and pages appropriately. That would be the best of all worlds, eh?

      Hey, some indie writers do get their paperbacks into bookstores, especially local independent ones. It’s worth a try! Glad to hear your book is coming soon! :)

  2. I agree, Becca. Book lovers will always build networks. And yes, the online reading community is far more vast than what one would ever hope to find in any brick and mortar store. Still, I do miss the social aspects of perusing the aisles with other readers, hanging out with a latte or soft drink and losing myself in the crowd for a while. But you know what? There are still plenty of local writers groups and book clubs where we can physically connect.

    Also, with the huge change in the publishing industry that is happening now, along with the recent success of the Smashwords independent authors who have hit the NY Times Bestseller list, I imagine that, soon, your local, independent bookstores might welcome quality work from independent authors. After all, we do have “independent” in common, don’t we?

    Happy reading – and writing!

    • Agreed, Anne! And from what I’ve heard, some local indie bookstores are already quite indie friendly. The challenge is finding an indie bookstore. There are none selling new books where I live.

      • Our local Sisters in Crime chapter recently changed the gathering location to an independent bookstore. We’ll be meeting in another couple of weeks. I plan on approaching the owners, to see if they might be open to stocking works by independent authors. I’ll let you know what happens!

          • Hi all!

            I wanted to follow up on my earlier comment about approaching an independent bookstore on stocking works by self-published authors. I’m happy (okay–tickled pink!) to say that we can now find signed, print editions of LOST GIRL (Book One of the Lost Trilogy) at BookmanBookwoman. The bookstore is located in Historic Hillsboro Village, Nashville, TN.

            One, great step at a time, eh?


            • Fantastic news, Anne … congrats! I’d love to hear about how you approached the store. Did you just walk in? Send a letter?

              • Hi Becca:

                Actually, BookmanBookwoman is the independent bookstore I mentioned in the earlier comment, where we hold our local Sisters in Crime meetings. So, I guess you could say it was just a matter of networking. That, and the owner is very supportive of the local authors!

                David, my hubby and business partner, is in the process of researching additional, similar opportunities. I’ll keep you posted!

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