Borders is closing all of its downtown San Francisco stores as part of its reorganization (in bankruptcy). They had already closed the store here in south of Market (SOMA) last year, and now with the closure of the large store on Union Square and the smaller one in the Westfield Centre a few blocks away from Union Square, there will be no more bookstores within walking distance from me except Alexander’s and the small independent store in the Ferry Building, and who knows how long they will last. I still have the venerable City Lights but that’s a 25 minute walk to North Beach. Maybe that’s my last refuge.
I am deeply saddened by the closure of Borders. Ever since I moved back to San Francisco in mid-2008, I have mourned the loss, one by one, of all the bookstores around me including Stacey’s on Market Street. My idea of a perfect afternoon is visiting a bookstore, browsing for hours and coming away with a book I’ve never heard of. It was at Stacey’s that I came upon a book called Post Office Girl by the Austrian writer, Stefan Zweig, who was very popular before the Second World War and had been forgotten until the New York Review of Books (NYRB) started publishing his works.
I love independent bookstores and have been a customer of Books, Inc. in the Castro for years but sometimes I just want to walk down to the closest bookstore and until recently, it’s been Borders.
However, I also realize that Borders and its ilk – the “big box” bookstore – have been partly responsible for the demise of the quirky independent bookstore. I used to visit Cody’s near Union Square, in front of the Apple Store, but that’s gone. The original Cody’s in Berkeley closed shortly after that and is now a distant memory in the minds of most people. I have fond memories of Cody’s in Berkeley because it was much more of a real bookstore than the cavernous one near Union Square.
I suppose I belong to a generation of people who still love to read books. But I am also part of a generation responsible for killing off the bookstore. I have ordered books from Amazon. I have an iPad and I order ebooks from Amazon’s Kindle Store, which I read on long flights. Lately I’ve been borrowing books from the public library because I live in a very small flat and I don’t know how long I’m going to be here. I simply can’t bear the thought of having to pack up, once again, my entire library, as I did when I left Amsterdam (and had to give away so many books). I live a nomadic existence literary-wise. I would love nothing more than to have a library like the one that Michel de Montaigne had in his château.
When I lived in Amsterdam, I used to visit four wonderful bookstores all within two blocks of one another: the Athenaeum (a Dutch bookstore that carries a great selection of English, French, German, Spanish and Italian books); Scheltema (another Dutch bookstore with a fantastic collection of Dutch and foreign books); Waterstone’s (the English bookstore chain but with a much better selection than Borders) and the American Book Center. By far my favorite was the Athenaeum. It had small but had a well curated selection of English books. When you walked into the Athenaeum, you fell into another world, far away from the busyness outside, into a world of ideas and great writing. The Athenaeum created an atmosphere that was appealing to lovers of the book.
What Borders and its ilk (e.g. Barnes & Noble and yes, even Waterstone’s) don’t understand is that you can’t sell books like computers or cheap clothes, in a big box store with no atmosphere, where the shelves are mostly stocked with tacky celebrity memoirs ghostwritten by starving writers. Tyler Brûle captured my sense of despair in his column (Fast Line in the Financial Times) when he wrote (in Perfectly Proportioned Bookshops):
Scan the parking lots of many US malls and there’s a good chance you’ll spot a red brick or yellow stucco box belonging to a book retailer bolted on to a bigger yellow stucco box that anchors a host of other similar looking boxes with backlit logos, no windows and zero personality. Inside the book box, the experience is bewildering and alienating. The lighting is bright and harsh, there’s a vague scent of popcorn and there’s not a sales person or shelf-stocker in sight. The store is so big and devoid of any hint of cosiness that you feel there’s little need to return because you never locked eyes with a sales person, never found a welcoming corner to linger and browse, didn’t stumble on any literary surprises and ultimately didn’t connect as a customer. It’s for this reason that the big-box booksellers are failing and not the rise of e-books and various backlit screens.
The closure of Borders may give independent book stores like Alexander’s, City Lights and Books Inc. some breathing room to survive, but I fear for their long-term existence.