Bookstores are Dying: Does It Matter?

Yes, bookstores are disappearing.  But I am shocked to find myself asking, “Does it matter?”

You had to feel just a touch of schadenfreude when the Barnes &Noble branches started to close.  Barnes & Noble in my youth was a store on lower Fifth Avenue.  It billed itself even then as the world’s largest bookstore.  Back before the days of superstores, it was so big that it was divided into a conventional bookstore on one side of the street, and a used book/textbook center on the other.   Then they went national and became the very model of a modern corporate-small-store-eating chain, the basis with Borders for Fox Books the shop that ate Meg Ryan’s Shop Around the Corner in the romanticized Upper West Side of You’ve Got Mail.

As the independents disappeared, Barnes & Noble, at least in New York, became a place that tried to promote authors and work with the locals. Readings and signings happened often.  The Barnes & Noble on 67th and Broadway was not only near Lincoln Center, but a couple of movie theaters as well, including my favorite, the Lincoln Plaza Cinema, known for showing off-beat independents and foreign films.  Barnes & Noble was a great place to go after you got your tickets and still had half an hour or so to kill.  But it is no more.

Last Sunday, I went to the movies.  This in itself is an increasingly rare occurance in the age of Netflix and instant downloads. Why would anyone leave their home and sit on chairs that might be bedbug infested next to strangers who probably have the flu and forgot to turn off their cellphones?

I made the mistake of not getting tickets online for the extra $2, The film was sold out so I had an hour and half before the next showing. With no Barnes & Noble available, I walked five blocks over to the Time Warner Center, the most mall-like structure in the City, only to find that while the Border’s was still there, it shut its doors at nine pm on Sunday nights.  That might work in Santa Fe — but in the Big Apple it just seemed weird, but then again so is the whole mall-in-Manhattan-thing and most New Yorkers probably don’t even know there is a bookstore on the second floor at Time Warner.  The Time Warner Mall, by the way, is best known for the statue of a very fat man with a small penis.  Japanese tourists in particular seem to find this hysterically funny and are constantly posing for pictures in front of it.

Yesterday, I ventured out of my neighborhood again, and found myself in the East Village with a little time to kill, so I stopped into the St. Mark’s Bookshop which hasn’t actually been on St. Mark’s Place in years, since the rents drove it out.  There on the display shelf in front was Meowmorphosis (I refuse to provide a link; you’ll have to find this one for yourself). This is a book whose conceit is that  Gregor Samsa awakes one day to find he’s been transformed into an adorable kitten.  This was a “collaboration” between a long-dead Kafka (Zombie-Kafka?)  and a pseudonymous fantasy writer working under the umbrella of the same clever lads who brought us the Jane Austen Zombie books.  Kafka, who of course, wanted all his manuscript burned,  seemed to intuit the holocaust.  I wonder if he saw this coming as well.

Given that this non-chainstore in what was not that long ago the city’s pre-eminent hipster stronghold is now reduced to selling cutsey over edgy, is there really any hope for bookstores at all or even a reason for their continued existence?

Just to clarify, I love books.  I don’t want to read all my books in tablet form.  I realize that booksellers are up against it.  Even the new and well-managed, Book Culture uptown where I live has taken to selling things that aren’t books — soaps, refrigerator magnets, fair-trade handicrafts like woven African baskets and scarves.  And if it keeps the place open, I’m not against it, but this doesn’t bode well.

Perhaps its personal bitterness showing through.  After setting up my own micro-press to print my opus, I found that most local bookstores weren’t willing to shelve it, even if purchased through Ingrams, or at deeper discount (with returns) through me or even given to them on consignment.  It didn’t move them if I offered to pack the place with friends for a reading.    They too are believers in the publishing system that is destroying them, and don’t want anything that bears the taint of self-publishing which they still mistake for vanity press.  So despite being a reader, and consumer of books, I feel as a writer, betrayed by the shopkeepers who don’t wish to be bothered by me and treat me like a pariah.  It’s like defending the homeless person who curses you out when you don’t place money in his cup.

I am for lack of alternatives, a Kindle writer.  My novel is available online worldwide in paperback and every e-book form.  My sales are modest and my name is mentioned on blogs that few have heard of, but at least I’m not paying tens of thousands each month for retail space used mostly by people in need of a public bathroom or with a few minutes to kill before their table is ready.   I don’t think I’ll be happy or sad when the last bookstore is gone.  It’ll  be more like hearing about a now dissolute old crush who wasn’t that into me to begin with and has now gained weight and is facing legal problems.

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