by Eric Miller
August, 2011--A few months ago I toured a condo on the market in Dallas. The walls were lined with bookshelves, more than the average home would have, and curiosity got the better of me, so I asked. The home was an estate and had been owned by a one-time book store owner. Borders, it seems, came into town and put her independent store out of business.
And so the tables had turned once again. My arrival at the open house occurred just as the giant chain was announcing its first round of store closings. Since then we've learned that this book seller will be no more.
It's easy to think of Borders, and other big-box chains, as evil entities sucking the life out of small neighborhood retailers. To some degree that could be seen as a valid argument. Yet when I was growing up, Borders and the like replaced stores providing only a fragment of the variety. Those arguments, for the most part, are not made from small town America.
I've previously said this about coffee house chains. Sure, in some cases they prey on viable independent businesses, but as these coffee chains proliferated across the country in the 1990s, in many cases they provided a "third place" (A place to gather that's neither home nor work) where before there had been none. Likewise these book store chains provided variety in reading material where before there had been none.
The book store in my home town of Altoona was for as long as I can remember a store known as The Book Store in a suburban strip mall known as Park Hills Plaza. Today suburban Altoona has a Barnes and Noble store, but no large national chain was present when I lived there.
When I spent time in Boardman, a suburb of Youngstown, Ohio, the Barnes and Noble store was about the only place you could go to break through the sheer boredom. The variety of periodicals there was greater than offered by the local library. For many young people in these small towns, the presence of a book store chain opened up channels of information that just didn't exist before.
To some degree the independent bookstore is making a comeback, but Borders' downfall was the Internet and to some degree the e-reader. Both have also opened up channels of information to small town America.
We've all looked through books at Borders and then purchased them online. It was only a question of how long that could last. There's little use in trying to stop these changes. Just as Borders put the nail in the coffin of some small retailers, other changes would bring the end of Borders.
What have we lost? While it may give a boost to specialty book retailers, there is something to be lost by the closing of this national chain. First, there's the "third-place" that online retailers simply can't replace. In many towns and shopping malls, there will be an empty space for some time--not only a physical one, but an awareness of a way we used to be.
That access to a wider variety of information in small towns has been provided in ample quality by the Internet, but the experience is not the same. That's where we find the real loss with the closing of the Borders chain, whose stores often included cafés and small music stages.
Borders, in a way, is--was--like a microcosm of a city. When you walk through a city, your mind is exposed to all kinds of information it wouldn't have been exposed to if you instead went to say Target or Disnyland. While a wider variety of information is available online than even at a mega-book store, online we tend to look only for the information we want. The chance meetings of mind and unexpected new material are minimized. Today we are increasingly (and dangerously) only consuming the information we specifically want (and agree with), and not exposing ourselves to a cross section of ideas and forming an opinion. The news reporting and commentary industries are a prime example.
After all, why did people go to Borders before ordering a book online?
To open a door to new information and to find something they want to read. With the closing of Borders these doors will be a little harder to find.