Just a few days apart this fall, the Borders bookstore chain turned the lights out and Amazon debuted a new version of its Kindle e-reader. If ever there was an example of creative destruction, this was it. The onetime megabookstore that once was blamed (along with Barnes & Noble) for slaying independent bookstores was done in by the even more mega bookstore in the cyber cloud.
I confess to participating in the plundering of Borders. Everything – even the shelves and coffee bar – was 90 percent off. My car filled up with sumptuous volumes on cooking, travel, and gardening. For almost no money, I own how-to manuals that will make me a better carpenter and conversationalist, and one, appealing to my inner Boy Scout, promised to help me survive in the wild. I brought home hardbacks to replace worn-out paperbacks, humor anthologies I might only have shoplifted a chortle from in the past, and a handy epigrammatical collection (Who said “Where is human nature so weak as in a bookstore?” That would be Henry Ward Beecher.)
Borders didn’t change with the digital times, as Barnes & Noble seems to be doing. And for every loss, I’m convinced, there is a gain. Sure, I am saddened and worried that the Internet is killing newspapers, civility, and church socials, but the Net has brought us unimaginable access to information, people, and goods and services. If bookstores are joining record stores as the latest bricks-and-mortar losers, our digital options are only getting better. Once you start using an iPad, Kindle, or other e-reader and experience the almost-instantaneous download of a book you just heard someone praise, it is hard to go back to browsing the aisles or waiting for the mail carrier to arrive.
You don’t need a physical book, though it is a beautiful thing. And a good bookstore is about more than books. Even if shopping-mall bookstores are not warm and fuzzy places, they are places where a certain amount of serendipity reigns, where you encounter other people taking pleasure in ideas. Bookstores are part of what sociologists call “third places” – destinations that are neither home nor office, places to linger without feeling that the meter is running or another customer wants your table.
Tom Sander, a Harvard University specialist on civic engagement, is concerned about the decline in third places. E-mail and social media such as Facebook and Twitter are compensating to some degree, Mr. Sander says, but only mildly. Both the three-year-old tea party movement and the recent wave of “Occupy Wall Street” protests rely to a great extent on the organizing tools of the Internet. These, however, are causes, not the more open-ended relationships that traditionally evolved in independent bookstores, cafes where people hung out long after breakfast, even family pubs where the point wasn’t inebriation but being where everybody knew your name. Borders wasn’t the best spot for building social capital. Amazon isn’t. Reading at home alone isn’t. So what’s left?
Long live the library!
When he endowed the first public library, the one in Boston, in 1852, Joshua Bates recalled his early years lingering over books on cold nights at the Hastings, Etheridge & Bliss bookstore in Boston. A public library, he wrote, should have “large, well-lighted rooms, well-warmed in winter” in which “the moral effect will keep pace with mental improvement.”
That’s a third place where we should never turn out the lights.
John Yemma is the editor of The Christian Science Monitor.