Why Book Stores Are Closing


[Photo from Oxford Daily Photo.]

This morning, I was horrified to see several large signs in my neighborhood:


What a HUGE mistake.

(Because now I won’t be able to walk down to the corner and see my new book on the shelf, but that’s not what I’m talking about. Really.)

I do know Borders had been planning this closure for a long time, but I was in denial. I noticed probably a year ago that they did a store-wide inventory — they even put a total dollar value on each shelf. Never a good sign.

But the businessmen behind Borders were wrong about one thing all along.

A book store is not about selling books. “That’s the simpleton’s view,” as Eman Laerton would say about other topics.

These aren’t just widgets we’re talking about here.

A bookstore is An Environment For Discovery. A Gallery of Written Ideas.

For those of us who have been disillusioned by formal education, book stores have offered an escape: a place to stumble onto new shit.

Since way back in high school, when I’ve needed creative juice, I’ve take a random stroll through a book store… to raise my awareness, study independently, and find inspiration in unexpected places. I’d sit down with 4 or 5 books at a time and dig through them. I’d usually go home with at least one.

I’ve purchased around 500 non-fiction books in my lifetime. I can’t put a price on how much I’ve learned from them. It’s millions of dollars worth of knowledge. And it wasn’t only the time I spent turning pages and moving my eyeballs. It was the time I spent staring into space, sitting on the floor of the book store, digesting alien ideas, wondering if this was the book that was going to reveal its secrets to me.

Say what you want about how “books are old media.” But there’s still something special about printing words on paper. It says “these words deserve to be here.” Anyone can make a PDF. It’s when you realize that even the copied words are worth killing a tree or squeezing an octopus.

But it’s not just the book, it’s the experience of being in the book store that matters. Instantly ordering and downloading exactly what you want with one click is not the same — and if you think it is, you’re one step closer to living in the fucking Matrix.

So long as people have physical bodies, GOING TO PLACES and DISCOVERING NEW THINGS THAT YOU CAN TOUCH will matter. That can’t happen when everything is linked and indexed and blurbed and reviewed and meta-tagged into sterility. 5,278,945 people Like this? Who cares?

Chaos must be involved. The element of surprise.

Me? I go to the book store to find what I’m NOT looking for. I want the book that I see out of the corner of my eye, just a few letters of the spine showing on the top shelf. Way up there, hiding from me. Probably in the wrong section, something I’ve never heard of. I don’t know who else has read it, and I don’t care. (Coincidentally, while writing this blog entry, I used some writing techniques I learned from The Art of Nonfiction by Ayn Rand — which I discovered during the above experience last weekend.)

If I only read books that I’m looking for, they’ll tell me what I already know. What good is that?

I admit… that was getting harder to experience, because there are too many published books to keep in one store. Only the cheesiest, pot-boiling easy-sellers were kept in stock. I’d see several square miles dedicated to a bullshit biography on Lady Gaga (or some other pseudo-celebrity that’s “famous for being famous”) while anything published more than a week ago was in Clearance. That is, unless it happened to be on a required reading list — and we know all those books are time-honored crap for conformists.


Why not go to the library, then? Because their collection is made of whatever people decide to abandon, stuff they couldn’t even give away.

There must be a solution, right?

Boutique shops like Writers Store in Burbank have figured that one out. Nurture a community (give seminars, panel discussions), stock the best products and tools for a particular profession (writing), and most importantly — make people feel inspired. I always think, “Just by walking in here, I’m a real writer.” Makes me wanna go home and get to work, but not before I buy something to thank them.

I think Private Libraries are another fantastic business idea. Old books, new books, it doesn’t matter — as long as they’re personally-selected for a devoted audience. Instead of coffee shops, why not pay to hang out in a media library personally selected by the Coen Brothers or Kevin Smith? Go there and study all day. I think we’ll be seeing those popping up in the future. If I’m lucky.

Let’s hope that the businessmen behind book stores grow to understand what a book store is really about, and can turn this all around. I repeat: it’s not about selling widgets. I’d hate to see book stores go extinct because they can’t understand that simple premise.

R.I.P., my local Borders. It’s too bad you couldn’t make it work. You were a corporate whore, but I loved you.

11 thoughts on “Why Book Stores Are Closing

  1. This is such a great article! I love your passion, and I feel the same way about evrything you said! Too bad the people who really needs to understand this are stubborn, and will continue to work according to the money they make, instead of the love of the consumers, and the experience put forth through these bookstores.

  2. Just curious… Did it ever occur to you that maybe book shops are going out of business because their expenses are outstripping their incomes? Not because they can’t understand that book stores are “not about selling widgets”?

    Can you understand that running a business c

  3. Carl, I’m kind of astonished at your outright dismissal of libraries. I’ve often had the opposite experience from yours–bookstores frequently carry a lot of new release junk, much of which is placed on shelves through paid placement rather than actual merit, with only minimal representation of “deep catalog” books with long-term cultural resonance. As a librarian myself, I can vouch that massive amounts of money are spent every year purchasing new books at most libraries, and massive amounts of time are spent in collection development (selecting those new books) and weeding (getting rid of the no-longer-relevant stuff you seem to imply as dominant in library collections.

    For what it’s worth, 33 libraries have currently selected your own book: http://www.worldcat.org/title/so-youre-a-creative-genius-now-what/oclc/676727482&referer=brief_results

    Maybe you need to poke around in a different library if yours really is the way you describe. There are certainly many more libraries that are vital places to find both cutting-edge and essential curated materials.

    I suddenly remember why I stopped posting on your Mulch/Zoltan forums years ago and following your work, and I’m bummed.

  4. I understand that a business needs to make money to cover their cost,but I couldn’t agree more about what Borders meant to my daughters and I ,after their mom and I split, this was our place to hang out, they loved reading,listen to music and get hot chocolate. We miss it.

  5. Carl, I think you’re right on here, but there are a lot of bookstores doing it right and doing it well. Even here in Mesa, AZ there’s a great store called Bookmans that’s independently owned and has been in business for a long time with no signs of stopping. They engage/participate in their community and offer interesting events. It’s an actual local business, as opposed to the large corporate and careless Borders/B&N/etc.

    Surely, there are some great bookstores in your area…

  6. What people seem to be yearning, longing, craving sounds more like a library. A place to traipse into a few times a week to browse, sit a spell and relax. A bookstore is a business and has to purchase books, pay electricity and employees and at the end of the day make some profit. Folks will spend hours propped on a chair at the book store to pass the time. Occasionally buy a six dollar book and wonder why these go out of business.

  7. Bookshops are closing down everywhere. Here in Australia we had over 1000 now we are down to two figures. Bookshops are about SELLING BOOKS so I must disagree with your thoughts. We don’t need to be department stores selling coffee mugs, aprons, T shirts, underwear or serving coffee and cakes. Customers expect knowledgeable staff, ample stock and fair prices you start merchandising all this other stuff people forget about the books. We are not FREE libraries with high rents, high payroll costs and other on costs we can no longer afford to have people using our shop as a drop in centre and FREE READING room. We have book clubs, book signings,in house events. Maybe bookshops need to charge an annual membership fee to browse and select books because I see this happening to all FREE libraries in a short while. The times they are a changin…to quote Bob Dylan

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