Friday, March 18, 2011
The closing of Madison's Borders Books West is the end of an era in more ways than one
The parking lot of the Borders bookstore across from Hilldale is as busy as ever, but now it's filled with bargain hunters. This location, which employs about 40 people, is one of the stores the chain chose to close in conjunction with their bankruptcy (apparently because the lease is more expensive than that of the smaller store on the East Side). They've been holding a going out of business sale the last few weeks and will close their doors next month. I've spent a lot of memorable moments here over the years. Superstore or not, it's still a bookstore, and its closing is a sad occasion.
Borders died slowly, bit by bit. Who killed Borders? The usual suspects -- you and me and technology. Not to mention a clueless corporate hierarchy that never could quite figure out what to do with the chain of superstores after it purchased them.
They used to hold author readings here on the second floor. The book shelves toward the back would be wheeled out of the way, and they would set up folding chairs. I saw Paul Krugman read here, standing directly below where the "Everything Must Go!" sign is now. Paul Theroux, too. Now the whole store just looks sad.
The liquidation signs everywhere are a jarring reminder that this superstore is in its final days. Ironically, Borders themselves helped popularize a concept that paved the way for their own demise. Bookselling, with a few exceptions in major metropolitan areas, used to be a small, intimate, leisurely business. Once you accustom people to the idea of shopping in a super bookstore with nearly unlimited inventory, it's only a matter of time until somebody named Bezos comes up with the idea of the ultimate superstore -- one that's online and virtual and bigger than any mere physical bookstore could be. A place called Amazon where you could easily order any book you want with one-click ordering from the comfort of your home.
And that, of course, was just the beginning. Just as the distribution of books became more virtual, now the books themselves are becoming virtual as well, reduced to mere electrons displayed on the screens of e-readers and tablet computers. Judging from the comparative sales growth of e-books and books on paper, we're getting close to a tipping point. It's only a matter of time until most of us mainly read books on an e-reader or tablet device, or an even better next new thing. This will change the nature of books and reading. How, nobody really knows right now, but it's likely to be in the direction of more of a multimedia, networked experience.
In such a world, what will take the place of that unique, private imaginative space between a reader and an author that reading a book used to provide, and what will take the place of the public spaces bookstores used to provide to encourage that pursuit?