Downsizing bookstores - 'the marketplace of ideas'

A small sign on the door of Waterstone's Booksellers in Boston tells a tale that has become sadly familiar in the United States in recent years. It reads: "The bad news: We're closing. The good news: Everything is discounted."

Inside the store last week, several dozen customers were browsing through the remaining stock. But nothing - not the brilliant noonday sun streaming onto the red carpeting, not the upbeat background music, not even the 60 percent discount - could shake the pall that has hung over this huge Back Bay store since the British-based firm announced plans to close its three Boston-area locations to concentrate on airport shops.

"It's terrible what is happening to bookstores," said one woman, echoing the feelings of many customers. Even a huge stuffed animal, the beloved monkey Curious George, seemed to register the despair, slumping forlornly against empty shelves in the children's area.

Nor is the loss of these three stores the only bad news on the literary front. Lauriat's, a 127-year-old East Coast chain, is closing its 72 stores this week. Rizzoli also plans to shut its Boston store. Battered by competition from megachains and the Internet, these 76 stores are joining an estimated 900 bookstores that have closed in a decade.

Yet the Internet, accounting for 2 percent of book sales, cannot take all the blame. Americans are buying fewer books - 1.1 billion last year, compared with 1.2 billion in 1997.

At this rate of attrition, will we all wake up some morning, five or 10 years hence, and wonder where all the bookstores went? Already the loss is incalculable.

A good bookstore serves as more than a retail outlet. It offers an invaluable addition to the intellectual life of a community. Maureen Kelly, director of stores at Lauriat's, calls a bookstore "a marketplace of ideas." She cites the pleasure of "being able to walk in and talk to someone about a book or get a recommendation from somebody knowledgeable, and being able to read a dust jacket or bump into someone perusing the same category and get their opinion."

Ms. Kelly estimates that each of the chain's 72 stores holds several literary events a week, ranging from storytime to author signings to talks by local residents. Similarly, Mary Beth Mitchell, general manager of Waterstone's in Boston, calculates that her store alone hosts about 90 author appearances a year. Each one draws about 60 people.

Do the math. That's 5,400 people a year at just one store who have had their perspectives broadened by books, ideas, and contact with authors.

After Lauriat's announced its closing, Kelly's phone began ringing. "From Baltimore to Boston, customers have been calling to say how sad they are," she explains. "They feel like a little piece of their turf has been yanked from them."

As this physical turf metamorphoses into cyber-turf, where will adults go for literary connections? And how will children learn the fine art of bookstore browsing, a habit that helps to promote a lifelong love of reading? At Waterstone's last Friday, one of the few sounds punctuating the funereal stillness was the elated voice of a little boy, probably about 4, who repeatedly said, "Look, Mommy, my favorite book!"

At Waterstone's, literary quotations painted on the walls take on poignant new meaning in the wake of the store's closing tomorrow. One, from Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges, reads, "I have always come to life after coming to books." This coming-to-life is the opposite of a perilous indifference to the printed page.

Another quotation on the wall comes from Thomas Jefferson, who declared, "I cannot live without books." Devoted and displaced readers everywhere share that sentiment as they search for new bookstores to call their literary home.

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