23 July 2011

The End of Borders

Patriots and Peoples began with a shopping trip to Borders books. Soon, Borders will be no more. This blog will go on, but how will other brick and mortar stores fare? It seems that I rarely visit Auntie's Bookstore, my local independent. Instead I carry a feed from Amazon in the column highlighting books that I've mentioned recently in this blog. The best bookstore between Seattle and Denver, Bookpeople of Moscow, has an uncertain future now that Bob Greene is retired. Bob often seemed as though he was one of my professors in graduate school in the sense that he frequently recommended books that would illuminate some aspect of problems that I was exploring. His recommendations were usually spot-on, and he was rewarded with a large share of my discretionary income.

Big Box stores do not offer this personal touch. Of course the employees can recommend books, but how often are their recommendations built on knowledge both broad and deep of me as a reader and scholar, and of the worlds of scholarship I tend to inhabit. It helped that Bob's partner was the director of the graduate program in which I was enrolled. But, I get the sense that many of his regular customers in other fields far different had similar experiences. Bob is a man of the world, and a man of books. Barnes & Noble employees seem to be book lovers, but their tastes run to genre literature more often that belles lettres; their knowledge of history seems grounded more in the History Channel than the output of Cornell University Press.

The largest selection of books available for browsing and purchase in Spokane is found at Barnes & Noble near the Spokane Valley Mall, but Barnes & Noble at Northtown Mall is nearer my house. Hastings has a better selection of Culture studies, including historic works by and about American Indians. Trips to Seattle, Bellevue (a Seattle suburb), or to the Tri-Cities usually permit a stop at one of the Barnes & Nobles there, and I'm always pleased to see that Big Box does not always mean the sort of homogenized junk that fills Spokane's stores. Of course, Seattle has much better choices: University Bookstore near the University of Washington (AKA Purple Puppy Pound from the point of view of this Cougar), and Elliott Bay Book Company. David Ishii Bookseller closed in 2005, a loss to the region.

The nearest Borders was handy because it was near the path between home and work. Its selection when it first opened exceeded Barnes & Noble Northtown, but that changed in the recent past. In the first year of its operation, I bought a couple of William Faulkner's texts from this store, but as they sold they were not replaced. Someone else also bought some Faulkner and the selection diminished. The opportunity to browse among a nearly full collection of inexpensive paperbacks by America's best novelist vanished, presumably because the sales were slow.

Borders never had the selection of chess books stocked by Auntie's (thanks to a chess enthusiast working at Auntie's many years), but it was better than Barnes & Noble for awhile. However, the last time I visited Borders, there were two chess books that were not worthless junk, and I reduced their inventory by one-half. I won't miss the absence, nor the time I wasted going in hoping that something had changed.

I'm gonna miss Borders' history section, and their new book tables in the front, and some of the bargain books. I'm gonna miss them a lot less than I would have had they closed four years ago when they had an impressive selection of literature (including Proust and Faulkner), U.S. history that is not military history (including Zinn and Schweikart), chess, and Pacific Northwest history, AKA regional that is not travel guides.

The End of Browsing

Browsing has changed. These days I'm more likely to browse by downloading a Kindle sample. I spent decades developing the ability to pick up a book in a library or bookstore, read the table of contents, examine the notes and bibliography, read the beginnings of a few paragraphs, and make my assessment. Does the work contribute something new? Does the author demonstrate sufficient mastery of his or her topic to warrant the elimination of trees that went into publication? Kindle samples do not permit this sort of analysis, but Google Books previews often do.

I can still browse at Costco, but their selection has deteriorated in the past two years. Before Senator Obama became President Obama, they carried his Dreams from My Father, and John McCain, Faith of My Fathers. Now they seem to have piles of screeds by Glenn Beck and a host of others pushing similar nonsense, but nothing on the other side.

Browsing is one form of reading that often leads to more time in a chair turning pages, growing, learning, thinking. Ebooks take away, or alter, the process of turning pages. But, some fear that ebooks are part an resistible trend away from reading itself. Hundreds of writers are musing over the meaning of the closing of Borders as though the failure of this behemoth is symptomatic of disturbing trends. "Electronic Book: The End for Borders" looks to have been published a few months ago. "Borders Closure and the End of the Book" appeared early this week. Google "borders books end of reading" as I did, and you can find many more.

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