The other day, I made my way through the crowds of people picking over the bones of my local Borders book store. I saw a floor manager standing near the entrance, and told him I was sorry to hear the store was closing.
As I spoke to him, I remembered the huge to-do about this store when it opened: protests, recriminations, nervousness, and someone (a local merchant, no less) foolishly strapping on a guitar and singing "break all the windows at Borders" during a gathering in front of City Hall. There was a lot of worry that Borders would become an overwhelming force driving out all indie bookshops.
Now it turns out that Borders itself is a casualty of more overwhelming market forces.
These days, it's not so much a question of corporate versus indie. Now it's bricks-and-mortar booksellers of all kinds trying to survive in world of online book-selling. As more of these stores fade from ours downtowns and retail centers, readers will lose another form of engagement. Goodbye to impulse buys you make while walking through the aisles. Goodbye to letting your kids run amok through the children's section with all the board books and stuffed animals.
Why express regret over a bookseller that some people regard as a "box" store? The trouble is, it's not just Borders. If you look closely at the book retail market in Santa Cruz, you will notice a number of new indie casualties this year. Gateways Books & Gifts faces imminent closure after operating for more than 30 years. After already downsizing and moving to a smaller space, Bookworks in Aptos -- also a 30-year retail veteran in Santa Cruz county, and one of my longtime favorites -- has closed altogether. Meanwhile, Tish, one of the employees at the venerable Capitola Book Cafe, tells me that the nearby community of Salinas -- a reasonably sized city -- has no full-fledged bookstore at all these days unless you count the gift shop at the Steinbeck museum or the book selections at various chain department stores.
I happen to spend all of my book-browsing time (and spare change) at two of our most promiennt local indie stores, which have survived in the face of market trends. Still, it saddens me to see anydowntown bookstore move out. It's one less place for people to meet, hang out and talk books and, for that matter, buy them.
So far our remaining indies have done a fine job of setting themselves apart by fostering a creative atmosphere and hosting community activities that can't be replicated at any big-box book stores or online bookseller.
Both Bookshop Santa Cruz -- which survived a previous head-to-head confrontation with the Crown bookseller chain-- and the Capitola Book Cafe host book clubs and writing groups. The Book Cafe is now an eatery with its own wine bar, and both bookstores have free or cheap events featuring local, regional and nationally known authors. I believe these stores survive because the owners have made them into full-on experiences. They are companionable and relaxing. You can actually hang out at either store all day.
I can only hope that these differences will be enough to help them survive long into the future.
I shared a few of these thoughts with the Borders employee that day. "Anyhow," I told him, in conclusion. "I'm sorry to see you guys move out. I really am. I think it's part of a disturbing trend, and I hope it changes."
"No worries!" he said in reply. "Can I help you find anything?"