Sunday, December 17, 2017
Opinion

Slow death of bookstores is heartbreaking

Bookstores, like libraries, are the physical manifestation of the wide world's longest, most thrilling conversation. Richard Russo, novelist

The world I love and enjoy most is shrinking.

Corporate or independent or public or whatever, I don't care. Show me a bookstore and I'll find a dozen reasons to love it and spend a few or a lot of dollars. My world is shrinking because each year, bookstores are shutting down without being replaced.

A little more than a year after Borders shuttered its 411 remaining stores, Barnes & Noble Booksellers, long the nation's largest chain, has announced it plans to close at least 20 stores a year for the next decade. The Wall Street Journal reports that since 2003, Barnes & Noble closed an average of 15 stores a year but opened about 30 a year, many on college campuses. Last year, though, it shut down 14 stores and opened no new ones.

Will the company, which opened its first store in New York City in 1917, eventually go dark like Borders?

My love affair with bookstores began when I was in third grade. Actually, it wasn't a proper bookstore but a secondhand shop with a lot of junk. My parents, who were migrant workers, went shopping for kitchen utensils in a little town in Cumberland County, N.J., where we were harvesting tomatoes. While they searched for pots and pans, I discovered a bookcase with dozens of books.

I found tattered copies of Edgar Rice Burroughs' novels Tarzan of the Apes, The Return of Tarzan and Tarzan and the Leopard Men. Some boy had loved these books nearly to death. Each book cost a whopping 10 cents, but the owner, apparently seeing how I clutched these treasures, sold all three to us for 15 cents. These books provided the escape and adventure a migrant boy needed. They made life in the labor camp tolerable.

The rest of that summer and during all the other summers we were on the road, I bought books at secondhand shops and real bookstores.

As a college student, I learned that bookstores were essential to my intellectual, spiritual and physical well-being. In Marshall, Texas, where I first attended college, I found a tiny Christian store that stocked Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus alongside treatises on Jesus, the Gospels and symbols in Revelation.

Over the years, I have fallen in love with bookstores in all parts of the United States and in several foreign cities. I make these stores destinations.

Before moving to St. Petersburg in 1994, if I had to travel to the Tampa Bay area or farther south, I would set aside a few hours to visit Haslam's Book Store in St. Petersburg. It is the quintessential locally owned, independent store. The owners and employees know me, and we always have stimulating discussions. They know what's on their shelves, which is important to me.

Down the street from Haslam's is another independent gem, BookLover's Café. I have bought many great books in this little store, some out of print. And the roasted coffee is always delicious.

All book lovers have a favorite store. Mine was the eclectic Borders in Fort Lauderdale, my hometown. It had one of the best, if not the best, locations of any bookstore in the country. It was on Sunrise Boulevard on the Intracoastal Waterway that flows into the Atlantic Ocean. I would make my purchase, get something to drink and find a spot beneath an umbrella on the water. I would read and watch yachts head toward the ocean. Sometimes I would take a water taxi to downtown and back.

That store is gone. It closed more than a year ago. Whenever I go to Fort Lauderdale, I drive past the building out of habit. I feel miserable each time. An old friend is dead and cannot be replaced.

And now Barnes & Noble plans to shrink. Given the rising popularity of e-readers, inexpensive tablets and Amazon's massive online marketplace, how much longer will the brick-and-mortar stores survive? It is a question I hate to think about.

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