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The Inspiring, Vanishing Bookstore

by Gip Plaster on September 7th, 2011

Those of us who choose simple, deliberate lives and aim for a life filled with high-quality experiences often seek inspiration for our creative endeavors.

For me, bookstores have provided lots of inspiration through the years.

I don’t actually shop at them, of course — the prices are too high — but they still provide some of the inspiration I crave.

But They’re Going Away

The problem is this: There aren’t many bookstores left. Around here, Half Price Books and Barnes and Noble are the only players left standing.

Because of my used bookselling business, I spend lots of time at Half Price Books. Since their stores have gone for a clearer, more respectable image recently, there’s nothing inspiring about them. Besides, when I’m at Half Price Books, I’m working. I buy a lot of inventory for my business there.

Barnes and Noble is still around, but their focus is changing. Lots of their floor space is now devoted to ebook readers, gifts and “placeholders” — junk books they publish themselves and never expect anyone to buy that help make the store seem fuller.

Borders, of course, is already gone from many cities and its remaining stores have been turned over to liquidators. The red and yellow signs, fixture sales, stained carpets and no-refund policy make those brave enough to venture in feel like unwanted criminals invading someone else’s warehouse. Soon, there will be large, possibly unrentable holes in shopping centers around the nation where there used to be a Borders.

Next year or perhaps the next, Barnes and Noble will likely be gone too. The writing is on the wall.

Why It Matters To Me And Very Few Others

Like I said, I’ve found that I draw inspiration from certain things.

I don’t do drugs or even drink alcohol, but I get giddy from really good live music, when I walk through a park or when I visit a place where a buffet of ideas and attitudes are on display.

Bookstores are filled with lines and phrases that inspire my writing. Libraries work for that, too, sometimes, but the silly rules and dumb policies cancel out part of the experience.

Of course, companies can’t stay in business when people look but never buy. I’d never buy a book at Barnes and Noble because I know for certain they’re cheaper online. I can even look it up any book ISBN while in the store (something booksellers like me have been paying to do on our cell phone for years that’s now available to everyone) and prove it.

The Barnes and Noble stores in my area have removed most of the chairs and seating areas to discourage free reading. Some locations still have seats, but they’re in the cafe for the free-wifi users. Half Price Books took out most of their seating years ago.

With no independent new or used bookstores around here and mall bookstores a thing of the past, there are very few chances for those of us who are inspired by bookstores to get our inspiration.

A Wider Impact

There is actually a bigger picture here.

Bookstores that were once the gathering place, waiting place and home base for many evenings out aren’t there anymore. Here are two quick examples in Fort Worth.

When the live music at Fort Worth’s Central Market wasn’t very inspiring, I’d leave my table and explore the Borders across the parking lot for a while. Now, when the music stalls, my whole party and I just leave. The bookstore expanded the evening — helping correct an evening that wasn’t going very well.

When visiting downtown Fort Worth’s Sundance Square entertainment district, the Barnes and Noble was a great place to enjoy those few minutes between dinner and the play, movie or show. Now, with very few chairs and reduced shelving so they can look full with fewer books, there’s nothing really there to see.

In these two cases, the absence of a functional bookstore changes my patterns and shortens my evening, something those who promote cities, shopping and nightlife don’t want to happen.

And that’s just two simple examples of how the end of the bookstore era is changing societal patterns.

Does It Really Matter?

The vanishing bookstore has cultural implications beyond the obvious and beyond those I’ve mentioned, don’t you think? I’m not overstating the case for bookstores, am I?

I’m already feeling nostalgic for the days when there was a bookstore to help inspire my tired, used-up brain — and they aren’t all gone yet.

But they might as well be.

Do bookstores matter to you? I know they can’t stay in business from people like me, but I miss them nonetheless.

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From → Simpler Living

18 Comments
  1. Gip – These places still exist, and they’re not likely to go away anytime soon. Even better, they WANT you to browse, read, and borrow but not buy. Yep, I’m talking about the library. Today’s libraries have books, DVDs (of popular movies too), ebooks, and fun programs. Granted, I’m spoiled by our local award-winning library system, but even small libraries have these things and more. I like bookstores, but I’ve always been a MAJOR library fan, if ya can’t tell. :-)
    Candi @ min hus recently posted Recognizing Enough

    • Yes, I mentioned libraries in the post, and they’re sometimes very useful and inspiring. Many of them around here are not, however. They are very much governmental organizations with strict rules and a grander view of themselves than necessary.

      I like libraries for a different reason than I like bookstores. Bookstores are bustling and dynamic while libraries are quiet and a nice place to think. They’re two different things.
      Gip

  2. It’s ironic that all the chain bookstores, who drove most of the independent bookstores out of business ten years ago are now themselves downsizing or closing. I wonder if there will be a reappearance of (at least some) independent bookstores as a result.

    How about coffee shops, Gip? Not Starbucks or other chains, but independent coffee houses with sofas and comfy chairs and books and maybe poetry readings and live acoustic music? Are there any of those there? Could that maybe be a substitute for the bookstore as an inspirational social hub?
    Mike | Homeless On Wheels recently posted Internet Grocery Shopping Experiment – Groceries Express Fail

    • The chain bookstore were successful in driving the independents out of business, but they haven’t been able to find their own niche in the marketplace. Reading habits are still in flux, but I would think a new kind of bookstore will eventually develop — probably smaller and more focused on individual service and ordering products for people who don’t want to order for themselves. Ereader service might be part of it too. They might look something like today’s cell phone stores.

      We don’t have many independent coffeeshops. I’ve actually looked around for them, and there are only a few. None seem very useful. I don’t actually like coffee or high-priced tea, so that’s an obstacle too!
      Gip

  3. Marti permalink

    You have inadvertently hit upon one of my pet annoyances — sucking up the free stuff meant for the actual customers that purchase. Continually browsing in bookstores but never buying anything, or using the coffee shop wifi for all one’s internet needs while buying nothing or only the cheapest coffee on the menu are a couple of things often touted on minimalist blogs as a way of cutting costs and downsizing one’s life. I consider it being a schnorrer.

    I think it is morally incumbent upon us to BE A CUSTOMER to avail ourselves of the free stuff these places offer. A bookstore is not a library where one’s taxes pay for the facilities. It is a for-profit business. To browse a bookstore like a schnorrer, to come in, sit and read the books for free and then put them back … or not and just leave them where they lay … and leave is simply not justifiable.

    If we don’t want to pay for internet in our homes, then be a mensch and buy something substantial at those coffee shops. Leave a decent tip for the staff.

    If we want all those nifty bookstores to continue to exist, we have to buy books in them from time to time.

    I get my inspiration from the internet, and I pay for my own internet. If I am browsing a bricks and mortar bookstore, it is because I intend to purchase something, not just take up everyone’s time getting inspired to trot back home and order my inspired choice online where it is cheaper.

    • Many stores offer free services to keep you in the store. That’s why so many stores have knobs to turn and things to press and rearrange. Keeping you in the store is their second most important goal. Most important is getting you to come in the first place. That’s why stores have “doorbuster” sales. When I worked in the advertising department at RadioShack, those were the company’s biggest problems. People rarely come to RadioShack, and when they do, they leave quickly.

      The point is moot concerning bookstores here, though. They no longer exists except BN and HPB. BN offers free wifi to keep customers in the store, and it seem to work in the one store near me that still has seating for them. The stores with no seating are apparently taking a different approach.

      But I’m an unapologetic user of all things companies offer for free. In a way, I’m falling into thier trap, I suppose, but I can take care of myself.

      And for the record, the library that I use is paid for by citizens of a city in which I don’t live, and they still let me have a card. That’s a generous approach, I think.

      Gip

    • There is a store in Denton, Texas called Recycled Books — the only independent bookstore I can think of in North Texas — that might be something like the one in that NYTimes story. They do have signs, though. And as far as I know, they’re not planning to go out of business. But the owner has grey hair and appears to be in his 60s, so how long can they continue? He may be wondering that too.

      Gip

  4. Hi Gip,

    I agree that it’s sad that so many book stores are closing. It’s hard to compete when there are big players like Barnes and Noble and Half Price Books.

    That said, before I had kids I used to love browsing my local library. I still make a weekly trip there, but I have to do my browsing and reserving online.

    There is just something about trying to browse the library while stopping a two-year old from grabbing all the books off the shelf that leaves something to be desired. ;)

    Hopefully your Barnes and Nobile and Half Price Books will remain open.
    Jenny @ Ex-Consumer recently posted Emergency Fund Progress, Month 1

    • Libraries are a great place to read magazines and newspapers, but since I don’t read fiction, they don’t work very well for browsing. On the topics that interest me, I’ve seen the books that were published in previous years. It’s the new stuff I want to see, and libraries around here don’t keep up on new non-fiction. Of course, there are fewer new non-fiction books these days, too, another sign of changes in the industry.

      I can’t imagine having to deal with a child every day. It’s foreign to my experience and I’m happy to keep it that way. I’m biologically programmed for other purposes, I think.

      Gip

  5. Alex permalink

    Funny thing where i am the independent bookstore is on rise ( not disappearing) I love visiting them & split my $$ between them & online shopping, very aware they give me inspiration & new ideas etc for that i am willing to buy the book at a higher rate because that price includes the value added service …

    personally we can’t complain of shops be they bookstores or other disappearing when we don’t give them custom.

    Libraries need not be viewed thru such disdainful vision either – try on another set of glasses & visit the library again someday soon :)

    • I’m glad to hear there’s a place where bookstores are still around. The vanishing of bookstores from around here has been well documented.

      Libraries really don’t serve the same purpose as bookstores since libraries focus on archiving and bookstores focus on presenting new ideas. There’s room for both, and both can be inspirational.

      I should have mentioned in the post that Half Price Books is based here in Texas and not likely to disappear soon, although they will need to change again if they want to survive.

      Gip

  6. I worked at a small-town bookstore in the 80s, bought my share of books and CDs from the big boys in the 90s, and have worked reference in a midwest library system since 2006. All have their merits, though none can beat the local shop “where everybody knows your name” for friendly customer service. The library system I work in usually has a special section for new releases, non-fiction included, but funding has depleted the buying power. A continued loss of property taxes puts public libraries in jeopardy, as well. The big business in my library is centered around free DVDs now that franchises like Blockbuster are leaving. The whole scene is changing — many libraries have cafes and there may be some kind of hybrid in the future. Who knows? Your articles always get me thinking, Gip.
    Tamara Brown recently posted Hot Flash

    • Thanks for commenting, Tamara. I have lots of connections with both libraries and bookstores too.

      I think libraries in their current form are probably doomed too. But the ones that are changing will find new ways to serve their communities. Another issues is whether citizens will consider those new ways of serving people worthy of any tax dollars at all. Free DVDs and coffee bars aren’t really why cities and counties exist. It will be very interesting as each jurisdiction decides for themselves what role libraries will have in the future.

      In the meantime, I’ll still be visiting my library and the remaining bookstores. They’re nice while they last, and I plan to take full advantage.

      Gip

  7. Libraries are struggling in the UK. Our local library is being downsized imminently. Redundancies are being made generally to library staff. This bothers me, more than the bookstores (although I do love bookshops – I love browsing the physical books) – library is a communal thing, and they offer so much more than just books. Rather depressing but a sign of the times…
    Jo@simplybeingmum recently posted No Waste Tastes Great 9 September 2011

    • Libraries around here are stable at the moment, but as cities cut budgets around Texas, libraries as well as parks and city pools are always at least considered for the chopping block. People are willing to rise up against library closing, which is nice. In Fort Worth, city pools have been closed to save money and all city buildings, including libraries, are closed several extra days each year to save money, but most services survive.
      Gip

  8. Wow-a business opportunity –an inspiration and innovation store, like an independent bookstore, with coffee, and art supplies, and kiosks focused on ” how to” tutorials, perhpas with rented creative space, rented rooms for gatherings, etc

    • That sounds like a great idea! I’ve often wished I could rent a space for the day and get some work done instead of doing it at home. I know there are shared offices and long-term artist spaces, but I don’t know of anything like you’re suggesting. I’d certainly support something like that.
      Gip

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