Thursday, September 23, 2010

Death of a bookstore

The first time I went to the Barnes & Noble at 66th Street and Broadway in New York City, a mentally disturbed middle-aged man in blue jeans and a Yankees hat screamed at me in the store's cafe area. He accused me of being a gay Irishman. He said I was in for an ass-kicking. It was April of 2004 and I'd only been in the city a week or two, so the confrontation served as my introduction to that Barnes & Noble and life in New York. He sat at a nearby table, ignoring his book while yelling at me. I briefly made eye contact and immediately regretted it. Finally I picked up my bag and left the cafe. The other customers probably considered me a coward, even as they cowered away from the lunatic who now sought a new target.

In the six years since that incident, that Barnes & Noble became our most frequently visited store in the city. Over the years I've bought dozens of books from there and spent hundreds of hours wandering around the massive store. It had three stories of books, a basement full of DVDs and CDs, and a fourth floor cafe that was also home to hundreds of magazine titles and, on at least one day, a deranged reader who loved the Yanks. It will all be gone in four months.

Last month, Barnes & Noble announced it would close the store this coming January. The thing that kills million of New Yorkers - high rent - fatally wounded the store. The current lease was ending and the increased rent "made it economically impossible for us to extend the lease," said a spokeswoman. A Century 21 clothing store will take its place. Barnes & Noble itself is in trouble, as Amazon, e-books and a changing publishing world conspire to damage the behemoth chain that has, of course, also been the downfall of smaller bookstores.

Some people feel little sympathy for the company's plight, citing those closures of small, independent bookstores who may have been victims of Barnes & Noble's once-overwhelming success. Feel bad for Barnes & Noble? Might as well feel pity for the fall of the Soviet Union.

But I will mourn this store's closing, for what it means to the company's future and, more importantly, what it means for publishing.

The store at 66th Street holds special memories for me. One day in September 2005, I sprinted up the escalator to the third floor, then walked to the sports books. There in the football section, near some John Feinstein books, sat my just-released book, Keeping the Faith. There were three copies. It was, obviously, one of the coolest moments of my life. Nineteen months after sitting in the cafe while a disturbed man threatened me and I wondered what in the hell life was going to be like in New York, I bought a copy of my own book from that store.

However, nostalgia has little to do with my regrets about the store's demise. There are still numerous Barnes & Noble stores in the city - there's actually another branch just up the street, at 82nd and Broadway. The closing frightens because it's just one more sign - a four-story sign - that the book industry is going through tough times. Like newspapers, magazines, movies, and television, the book world is struggling to adapt to the difficult economy and the changing media world.

Walk into any Barnes & Noble today and you'll be greeted by a display for the Nook, the company's entry into e-book readers. The sales folks are helpful, knowledgeable and enthusiastic. They talk about its virtues, reliability and convenience. And I have absolutely no desire to ever own one.

No matter what happens to bookstores, people will keep reading and they'll keep reading books, only they might be reading them on screens instead of on paper. Whatever keeps the industry alive, I support, though the money authors earn on e-books is nothing compared to what they now make on the real thing. Maybe that can change.

But I still want book books. I want to browse and buy, hold them, drop them, write in them and page through them. In the end it's always about the words, but for me it's also about the packaging. I read a screen all day at work and sit in front of one while writing or surfing online. Books provide me the one chance to unplug while unwinding.

And in today's world Barnes & Noble provides some of the best chances to do all of those things. Some people speculate that if the large chains eventually completely flounder, independent stores will regain their prominence. It's a romantic idea, though one that might not do much to help the publishing industry. I love independent bookstores and many still, thankfully, thrive in the city. But aside from The Strand - my true favorite store in the city, which, unfortunately, is something of a trek for us - the 66th Street Barnes & Noble has long been our book-buying paradise.

It has three levels of books. Like every Barnes & Noble store, this one possesses a unique smell, which I can't trace but was probably created in a lab devoted to soothing aromas. Company scientists mixed some old books and new coffee beans and created a perfume that each store pumps through the vents. First floor holds the new releases, which I'll always browse. Oh, Bob Woodward's got another new one. Guy's prolific. There's that new biography on Roosevelt. Michael Chabon's book of essays is finally out? Great. Glenn Beck writes novels?

The fiction's on the second floor, the classics mixing with romances and thrillers, poets mingling with hacks and essayists. I'll search for a good paperback or a classic I somehow avoided in school. The third floor's my favorite, the nonfiction. Sports, biography, history, film, TV, music, true crime, writing books, humor, everything. It's nearly impossible for me to spend time in that section without heading down the escalator clutching a book that will set us back between $11 and $25.

If Louise is with me, I'll inevitably end up in the cafe, where she will have worked on securing us a table. Unlike the stores in Minnesota, where there's always ample free space, the tables at this cafe seem to have a waiting list that's longer than the one for Green Bay Packer season tickets. The cafe workers frequently make announcements over the loudspeaker, declaring that cafe seating is for cafe customers only, and that if you do not have an overpriced coffee in your hand or a chocolate chip cookie stuffed into your face, you will either be buying one or ejected from the area. Your choice.

We'll sit there for an hour or so, reading through the books we've brought up, taking notes, sipping orange juice, avoiding the bookstore bouncers. By the time we leave, we'll have spent two or three hours on the premises. As we wind our way down and again pass through the nonfiction and fiction sections, we might stop to browse some more, entranced by the sight of all those books and the smell of all that coffee and paper. That's how we've spent dozens of nights during our six years together in New York City.

The store closes in January and we'll take our little family tradition to another store, in another part of the city. Our bookstore nights will survive, just as long as bookstores themselves stay alive.

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