THE NEWS: The Borders Group plans to liquidate its remaining assets at 399 stores after failing to find anyone to purchase the bankrupt company.
THE PROVOCATION: You know all the hoopla we've been hearing for the past half-century or so about a "paperless society"? Well, it's finally coming to pass. The death of Borders and the continuing collapse of the newspaper industry make it clear that this fire has been more than Kindled. It has, in fact, become a roaring inferno.
Now we must ask ourselves: Is this really what we wanted?
Slowly, inexorably, we're losing our senses. The feel of a newspaper on our fingertips, so closely associated with the taste of our morning coffee and the smell of bacon as it wafts up from the stove top. The olfactory bliss of walking into a bookstore and not just perusing but inhaling the scent of so many printed pages. These experiences, so deeply ingrained in our collective psyche, are going the way of the phonograph and the corner drugstore.
I remember when I used to walk into a mall knowing my immediate destination. The bookstore. Or the record store. Whichever happened to be closer to the particular entrance that conveyed me to that retail smorgasbord. But no malls these days have record stores. Sure there's your occasional Sam Goody, but that outfit and others like it sell CDs, not records - and at obscene prices that make shopping there a self-defeating proposition when you can get what you want for a fraction of the cost online.
Then there are the bookstores. Once upon a time, every mall had a Pickwick Books (later B. Dalton Bookseller) or a Waldenbooks location. Now both of those venerable names are but memories. B. Dalton, which operated nearly 800 stores at its peak, was gobbled up by Barnes & Noble in 1987, and the few remaining locations under that nameplate finally closed last year. And Waldenbooks? It was purchased by - guess who - Borders, and many of its locations converted to Borders Express stores. Now those are closing, too.
Cody's Books, a gargantuan bookstore in Berkeley that I once drove 200 miles to visit, closed its doors three years ago after more than a half-century in business. Remember Brentano's? At one time, it was the largest privately owned bookstore chain in the United States, with 22 locations in the Chicago area alone. It went the way of the dinosaur in 1995.
Which leaves us with the aforementioned Barnes & Noble holding a virtual monopoly on the non-virtual literary marketplace. In other words, if you don't want to go cyber-rafting down the Amazon, Barnes & Noble is your only real alternative out here. If you live in certain parts of the country, you can visit something called Books-A-Million, which was in negotiations to purchase Borders before the deal fell through. But I'd never even heard of that outfit until it became involved in the Borders talks. Crown Books still operates in a few places, but it's not the same outfit it was a decade ago. Never among my favorites, it's now a knock-off operating under that name that buys overstocked books and tosses them haphazardly onto the shelves, hoping someone will buy them at bargain prices.
Don't get me wrong: I love Barnes & Noble - now, out of necessity, monogamously so. On Friday, those painfully spare and gaudy liquidation signs will go up at the Borders 15 minutes north of my home, and the vultures will begin to gather in search of no-refund, no-return bargains. For some, this will constitute a fleeting moment of opportunistic glee. For me, if I can even persuade myself to participate, it will be like attending a funeral.
Not long ago, another retail institution closed in our fair city, a regional department store called Gottschalks that was born here a century earlier and died an ignominious death of its own beneath those hideous yellow-and-red liquidation banners. I watched as the figures on this audaciously crass signage marched ever higher like some obscene and irreversible death march, rising from 20-30% to 40% to 50% and finally, in the store's death throes, 70-80% off. Often with an exclamation point at the end, as though this were somehow cause for celebration. I felt like incinerating the lot of them for having the temerity to gloat over the death of so hallowed an institution.
Perhaps for some these ghosts are soon forgotten, left behind in the ever-changing landscape of Americana. Not for me. For this particular writer, memories die hard. I still mourn the loss of a certain bookstore called The Upstart Crow, which operated in a mall hereabouts some three decades ago. Its fare consisted not simply of books, but of light snacks, coffees and an occasional string quartet serenading shoppers as they lingered at the shelves. It had character. Never a major player in the bookstore wars that would leave casualties strewn from coast to coast, the nine-store outfit all but vanished after declaring bankruptcy in 1987. Thankfully, an independent buyer came to the rescue for a single store in the chain, which still operates today under the Upstart Crow moniker in San Diego's Seaport Village. If only some like-minded messiah would swoop in and operate the soon-to-be shuttered Borders here in Fresno. But that's just wishful thinking.
While our government bails out bloated automakers and scheme-addicted bankers, the literary cornerstones of our culture - newspapers and bookstores - are allowed to fade quietly into oblivion. There's something fundamentally flawed with that way of doing business, but there's nothing we can do about it. That's how things work here in corporate America. The Upstart Crow was, after all, an upstart. And the establishment doesn't take kindly to such creatures.
We'll still have our morning coffee, not at home or at the Upstart Crow, and not accompanied by a newspaper or a good book. Our eyes will instead be glued to our iPad or Kindle at one of those 17,000 cookie-cutter Starbucks that pollute our landscape with their drive-through windows and $4.95 mochas, having long since vanquished the proverbial 25-cent cuppa joe. At least it's something, but it's not a bookstore. Nothing can ever truly replace a bookstore.
Editor's Note: This article first appeared in my online newspaper, The Provocation. You can access the site at www.theprovocation.net.