The news last week that Borders was declaring bankruptcy and closing some 200 stores was hardly surprising but was still, to me at least, a shock.
Back in the days when I covered the bookstore business for Publishers Weekly, Borders was perceived as an evil juggernaut that was going to destroy independent bookstores. But that argument worked much better against the previous villain, Crown Books. Crown made its ultimately short-lived business out of heavily discounting best-sellers, hardly a cultural benefit. But Borders (and, similarly, Barnes & Noble) wanted to reproduce the independent bookstore experience on a wide scale. That made it a threat to independents, but hardly evil.
One of the odd things about my line of work back then was that I was based outside of Chattanooga, Tennessee—not at the time a cultural center, to say the least. To find a decent bookstore I had to travel two hours or so to Atlanta. My situation improved when I moved to Los Angeles in the mid-1980s, but even then, getting to a good bookstore meant a longish drive out of the culturally barren San Fernando Valley into the Westside.
Within a few years, though, that changed, thanks to Borders and Barnes & Noble. By setting up shop in the Valley and back in Chattanooga and similar outposts, they made it possible to find culture alive and well in your own hometown, not just in some distant city. Sure, the best independents always outshone these chains, but both they and the chains did honorable duty. The difference was that the chains brought book culture to places where independents either wouldn’t or couldn’t go.
As a longtime fan of Amazon and a Kindle owner, I appreciate the convenience and long-tail abundance of online bookstores and e-books. Literary culture is the better for them. But they cannot replace physical bookstores as a social and tangible presence, as part of daily culture and commerce. Borders may be down, but I hope it is not out. I’ll be rooting for it to come roaring back.