Friday, February 18, 2011

You win some and then...

The day after the optimistic news of Target's plans to set up shop in the old Carson, Pirie, Scott store on State Street, came the terrible news of the bookstore chain Borders going into Chapter 11 bankruptcy.

The headline of the Tribune article about Borders said the chain would close half of its Chicago area stores. Checking the list of closures however, it appears they plan to close 100 percent of the stores that my family and I frequent on a regular basis. As I mentioned in my previous post about Carson's, I spent a lot of my life wandering around department stores but never spent much money in them. Bookstores are another story. I've spent countless hours browsing, and seldom have I left a bookshop without money changing hands.

The Borders store where my family and I have spent the most time is about ten minutes from home, in downtown Evanston. It has been a fixture of our lives for as long as our children have. We have many happy memories of that store. Countless children's books that mark the passing of time in Theo and Rose's young lives were purchased there, not to mention the books and magazines that illustrate my wife's and my passions over the last ten years. Saddest of all will be the loss for the people who work there, for the most part folks who care deeply about their work, and passed along their love of books to their customers. I wish them all the best in their future endeavors.

That store was the main draw for us to the town of Evanston, but not the only one. Evanston has a vibrant downtown and we consider ourselves fortunate to live so close. Besides, there is a Barnes and Noble about a block away so our lives in that respect will probably not change much as a result of the store's closing.

The same can't be said about the Borders store on Lincoln Avenue near Devon. More happy memories there as well as we found ourselves spending a lot of time in that shop if we happened to be coming up Lincoln or from points west of our home. There is no other reason for us to visit the otherwise uninspired Lincoln Village shopping center, so that chapter of our life is closed.

A little farther afield, there was the Northbrook store that we'd sometimes drop into if we were in the vicinity. I bought my copy of "The Sibley Guide to Birds" in that shop.

Once in a while on the way home from work, I'd stop in the Borders in the old Goldblatt's building in Uptown. That closing is perhaps the saddest of all to me as its presence signaled one spark of life in a shopping district of faded glory.

Then there are the two Borders closing on the south side of Chicago, the store in Hyde Park, a neighborhood that does not have a scarcity of book shops, and the store in Beverly, a neighborhood that does.

There are those who feel little sympathy for stores owned by a corporation they feel has engaged in predatory tactics. As mentioned above, Borders set up shop in Evanston very close to an existing Barnes and Noble, a comparable store. In the neighborhood of Lakeview on the north side, not only did they open up across the street from another B & N, but also down the block from an older, local independent chain store, Barbara's Bookstore. Barbara's could not compete with the two mega stores and closed that shop as they did also in Oak Park after Borders opened up in the old Marshall Field Building on Lake Street, one block from another long, established Barbara's.

That Oak Park Borders will remain open for now, but the Lakeview store is a goner.

The bookseller that is most associated with Chicago was Kroch's and Brentano's. At one time they dominated the scene, having stores in all the major shopping centers in the area and at least three in the Loop alone. Their closing in 1995 left an enormous void, leaving the Loop for a time with no quality booksellers. Borders opened up their State Street store about five years later to fill the void. Barnes and Noble followed suit shortly thereafter in the South Loop. The State Street store will be the one remaining Borders in Chicago proper.

Unlike their retail counterparts in other areas, the big chain booksellers didn't offer discounted merchandise in a no frills atmosphere. If anything, they went in the other direction, creating customer friendly environments that invited visitors to stick around and browse to their heart's content. Service was also a priority. The vast resources of a Borders or a Barnes and Noble insured that you could almost always get what you wanted, if they didn't have it on the shelves, they could get it for you asap. I dare say that some of these stores even surpassed the independents in many respects. There were a few big, discount book chains that resembled Walmarts more than traditional bookstores, but they didn't survive for long.

Still it is appealing to root for the Davids against the Goliaths. Independent booksellers have been going out of business at an alarming rate over the past thirty years. But the same can be said for independent retail merchants of all varieties. There are many reasons for this, not the least of which is the fact that for years, children, in this country anyway, have been encouraged to study hard, go to college and go for the golden ring, usually meaning getting into a profession. Few kids today I imagine dream of opening up or running a retail store when they grow up. The work is simply too hard, not glamorous enough, fraught with too much risk, for too little in return. The people who do open stores usually have passions for what they are selling, which is probably why today you'll find more independent booksellers than say, butcher shops or dry goods stores.*

The biggest culprit in Book Wars and the decline of the traditional bookstore of course is the computer. If they do it right, buyers can purchase books on-line for a fraction of what they pay at a brick and mortar store. To add insult to injury, some people use the generous comfort of the traditional bookstore to select what they want then go home and order the book from Amazon. I must admit to having done this myself a couple of times. Speaking of Amazon, they've also brought us the e-book which is wreaking havoc with the publishing industry and promises to do a lot more wreaking in the future. There is speculation that part of Borders' problems is that they did not address the e-book phenomenon as Barnes and Noble has.

So is the bankruptcy of Borders the death knell of the brick and mortar bookstore? Quite honestly I don't think so. I think back to the days when movie theaters urged their customers to "fight pay TV." They understood way back in the 60s that the day was coming when people would be able to access movies from the privacy of their own homes. Once that happened they figured, no one would go out to the movies. Of course that day did come and movie theaters closed at an appalling rate all over the country. But they didn't all close. People still feel the need to get out of the house and commune with other people. The collective experience of seeing a movie in public is a much different experience than watching a movie at home.

Shopping in public is a similar experience. For me as I suspect for countless others, there is no shopping experience that matches the joy of spending time in a bookstore. The presence of a bookshop is a sign that all's not lost in a neighborhood. As books are an essential part of my life, every bookshop that closes represents a little death for me. I know I'm not alone in this sentiment. The fact that Borders is not going away completely is cause for guarded optimism.

I wish them well along with their competitors, independent and otherwise.

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