When Bookstores Close

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With all the Borders stores closing, I'm having an About Schmidt moment. That's when I head out to places that feel like home, only to find they've disappeared. My nearest Borders did have a homey feeling, from college students camped in the café to 30-somethings playing Dungeons & Dragons. The manager made this store accessible to the community, but this once-thriving shop is going down with the rest of the ship. And I'm going to miss it.

I heard a digital expert say he was "device-agnostic" -- it didn't matter if he read physical or ebooks. But as more institutions go digital -- our bookstores, classrooms, libraries, newspapers -- we've lost faith in our living communities, becoming more isolated behind our screens. Face time matters. I remember my seventh grade teacher who turned me on to telling stories, the school librarian who checked out my favorite Nancy Drew mysteries. Borders, in spite of its megastore sins, helped continue the tradition of reading in real time, in the company of others.

In hindsight, we know that Borders should have jumped on the digital bandwagon before it was too late. Who knew then? A few years before the Kindle came out, I'd bought my husband a digital reader made in France. The selection of books was skimpy, but it hit all the favorite topics of my immigrant family: make money from stocks, how to bounce back from losing money. The device cost $400 and broke in less than two months. You can always replace an e-reader, but the institutions that took years to build are now eroding away.

The Internet favors currency, in both senses of the word. Anything published before last week or last year is considered old news. Wisdom is backlisted, rather than accrued. That's where bookstores and libraries have an important function in giving human curators, rather than Amazon and Google, the keys to our vast archives of knowledge.

Passing by the "store closing" sign at my local Borders, I'm wistful that another brick-and-mortar symbol of our thinking nature goes to dust. We may lose our big box stores, but let's hold on to the physical spaces where readers and dreamers, old and young, can gather.


With a Perspective, I'm Li Miao Lovett.