This must certainly be the first time that the closing of a branch of some corporate empire affected me with a kind of disappointment bordering on sadness. Many bookstores have closed, independent enterprises that have sparked a pang of regret here and there but always subject to time’s healing aspects. When Wahrenbrock’s, a veritable San Diego institution, closed shortly after Chuck Valverde’s death in 2008, just as the business was, by all accounts, being brought around sharply, the effect was pronounced and remains so.
It might have been because of this recent memory that when Borders at Sixth and G, downtown, was suddenly festooned with closing signs, “10% to 50% Off” and “Everything must go!”, some of us paused. We looked askance at this phenomenon in the light of media, the internet, e-books, and Amazon and wondered whether or not Gutenberg’s time was on the way out in favor of the Kindle and its clones.
John Lindy squatted by the lower shelves of a large, mid-store shelving unit with picked over and strewn trade-sized paperbacks from non-related genres: military history next to young-adult titles, witchcraft and girls alongside copies of Horse Soldiers, a nonfiction account of American soldiers on horseback in Afghanistan. Lindy says he is 51. “I like the war books. I was a Marine. The one I remember was the one about the SEAL that survived but all his team was killed.” Lindy could remember neither title nor author of the book he said he remembered. It is a long-standing condition of book sales, so common that even as a running joke it has worn itself to shreds. “Borders, they should have kept open because of the location. It’s near everything.”
Except for Upstart Crow in Seaport Village, there are no longer any bookstores downtown, retail or used, independent or franchise. None, Lindy is told.
“I didn’t know that. I heard they went bankrupt. I wish they could have got some better deals. I just picked this up, for example.” It is War Stories of the Infantry, by Michael Green and James D Brown. “There are books like these where I would wait for the price to go down. Four months later, it was still $28. They could have reviewed their prices a little. I look for bargains.”
Once a week or so, Alejandro, 46, comes in looking for books on history and science. He is aware of the location’s bankruptcy but supposes it was simply lack of customers. This might be argued by viewing the store’s population on any weekday, but Alejandro concedes it might be online book buying. “Or, maybe they are buying electronic books. That, too. Oh, I’ll miss this store.”
An employee named Julian concedes, “Amazon, I’ve heard, has better deals. I don’t know, I’ve never personally bought from them. It’s a real threat. Many people would rather just download their books for free in their living room. For me, I like to read hand-held books. Professional journals or texts for school on political science. I’ll read them online, but some...”
Some you want to smell.
A friend of Julian’s, loading crates onto a hand truck, commented, “Before the recession, Borders opened a lot of stores and some of them at the wrong lease rates. Now we’re finding out which ones those were.” He rolls his eyes, indicating our setting.
“But those of us who like to hold books and smell them provide hope for the mom-and-pop stores,” Julian concludes.
In the November/December 2010 issue of Boston Review, author Onnesha Roychoudhuri wrote “Books After Amazon,” a seminal piece of journalism with every earmark of the death of bookstores short of hysteria. A telling quote from that piece reads, “ Amazon [is]...the world’s largest retailer of books in any form.” Roychoudhuri quotes Jeff Bezos, president, founder, and CEO of Amazon vis-a-vis the book: “It’s had a great five-hundred-year run...but it’s time to change.” According to the author, 20 years ago, “there were 6000 independent bookstores across the country. Today, that number is closer to 2200.”
Roychoudhuri concludes, “Unless publishers push back, Amazon will take the logic of the chains to its conclusion. The publishers and readers will finally know what happens when you sell a book like it’s a can of soup.”