Saturday, February 19, 2011

Reading Without Borders

By Barbara Fister

The long decline of the Borders bookstore chain has been painful to watch. The impact on the book industry of their bankruptcy won't be easy to deal with, either. Though its market share had been falling, Borders still sold a lot of books to a lot of people.

I live in a town too small for any chain store to bother with, but since I'm only 75 miles and a phone call from two of the best mystery bookstores in the universe (Once Upon a Crime and Uncle Edgar's, both in Minneapolis) I haven't felt deprived. But I'm mourning the Borders I knew.

I will always remember the day I achieved nirvana in Ann Arbor. I was attending an intensive multi-day event at a conference center in nearby Ypsilanti and, after a few days trapped near a highway cloverleaf, several of us escaped into town to find a bit of civilization. Our conversation over a great Indian dinner was enjoyable, but what really blew me away was walking into an awesome bookstore. It seemed to have endless shelves filled with an amazing selection of books. I was working on a book about third world women writers at the time and was amazed and pleased to find so many of their books on the shelves, even those published by obscure small presses or imported from abroad. Whatever I looked for, it seemed to be there, along with an inexhaustible supply of books I didn't know existed but was delighted to discover. Though it was called "Borders," it seemed to transcend them.

Years later, John Baker, editorial director of Publisher's Weekly, told me the golden days of independent bookselling weren't all that golden, that the chains that were being blamed for killing the indies had increased the geography of reading by providing bookstores to communities that had never had them before and bringing more titles to more people than ever before in history.

A Brief for Bookstores

Though e-books are capturing people's imaginations right now, as well as a growing (but presently still small) market share, a traditional bookstore offers inspiring opportunities to browse and discover books, a chance to meet authors, a place to hang out while surrounded by the smell of paper and the silent hum of words, an endless number of stories yet to be discovered.

Borders will be missed by readers in the communities losing their stores. I personally believe we will always want some books on paper and will need bookstores to help us discover books we knew nothing about, and to support those beliefs I plan to tithe myself by spending money where my heart is -- though perhaps "tithe" is the wrong word for something that brings me so much pleasure.

Barbara Fister is the author of the Anni Koskinen mysteries. The most recent title in the series is Through the Cracks. She is an academic librarian and serves on the SinC board as Secretary.


Jill said...

In recent discussions hither and yon, a few people have said they think the trend will be that the big chains close, e-books and online retailers have the lion's share of the market and... small, independent bookstores slowly start to bloom.

I like this thought!

As a writer, of course I want to see bookstores thrive, any kind or store, anywhere... just as long as people buy books and keep reading.

There may be something to this idea, that the indies will survive and the corporate giants wither. There is something very personal about the small stores, they make a connection tot heir readers and with authors.

It'll be interesting to see how this industry shifts over the next several years...

Mary Ingmire said...

I just returned from a trip to "my" Borders, one slated to close. While it's the only one in my area to close, I felt sad. This one feels better than the others. There's nothing like losing oneself in a bricks and mortar store for hours.

Meg Mims said...

One of my fave stores is Borders in Ann Arbor. I hope they're not closing that one!

Barbara said...

There will, sadly, be a lot of communities that lose their only bookstore with these closures. For those independents that remain, I hope publishers will recognize what a great resource they are. A knowledgeable bookseller is a real treasure. In the case of mystery bookstores, their depth of knowledge is awesome.