BOOKS FEBRUARY 4, 2013
Allow me a moment to sing the praises of Waldenbooks—yes, Waldenbooks, the Borders subsidiary that privileged grab-and-go buying ahead of casual browsing. It was the kind of place you went when you needed to buy a book but didn’t particularly care for bookstores. But as a teenager growing up in an industrial Chicago suburb, I practically lived in the store’s narrow music-book section, which is where I first discovered Greil Marcus’s Lipstick Traces, a book that hit 16-year-old me like a thunderbolt.1 Any bookstore that encourages you to punch above your intellectual weight is a good bookstore. Tucked between the JCPenney and the Casual Corner, the North Riverside Park Mall Waldenbooks was a good bookstore.
I have been thinking about Waldenbooks this week, after the news that Barnes & Noble plans to close almost three hundred stores in the next ten years—more than a third of all its outlets. Is this good news for literature lovers? Ever since the rapacious expansion of Barnes & Noble and Borders into suburbia in the late 1980s and early ’90s sparked the fury of independent booksellers, the chain has been depicted primarily as a foe. But then, as now, Barnes & Noble had its place. Its stores were designed to keep people parked for a while, for children’s story time, for coffee klatches, for sitting around and browsing. That was a business decision—more time spent in the store, more money spent when you left it—but it had a cultural effect. It brought literary culture to pockets of the country that lacked them.
Borders and Barnes & Noble seemed to intuit the craving for bookish culture in the working- and middle-class suburbs.
Borders and Barnes & Noble seemed to intuit the craving for a bit of bookish culture in the working- and middle-class suburbs, though more likely they market-researched it. It’s easy to forget now, but at the time suburban culture had few places that weren’t bars, bowling alleys, or the kind of restaurant where you could drink coffee and smoke for three hours without the waitstaff looking at you funny. Barnes & Noble’s campaign, in competition with Borders, to open 20,000-square-foot superstores across America throughout the decade was fueled by a realization that suburban shoppers weren’t necessarily hunting for books per se but were looking for a semblance of community, or at least a place to rest for a few minutes. As Robert Spector writes in his 2005 book Category Killers: The Retail Revolution and Its Impact on Consumer Culture, “Long before Howard Schultz, the chairman of Starbucks Coffee, popularized the idea of a ‘Third Place,’… B&N created a locale with amenities such as public seating and restrooms, a place where people were encouraged to browse, to stay to buy another book … a magazine … some music; to relax in a comfortable armchair, nestled in a reading nook, while thumbing through a best-seller.” 2
And not just bestsellers. Around the same time, the retailer launched its series of Barnes & Noble Classics—reprints of warhorses like Great Expectations and Middlemarch that, being in the public domain, were essentially profit fountains. The chain may have made its profit by selling massive amounts of Stephen King and Judith Krantz, but it did so while branding itself as a seriously literary enterprise, lining its walls with reproductions of classic covers and hawking shirts with illustrations of famous authors. I won’t argue that slapping a caricature of Jane Austen on a tote bag is a powerful stand for literary culture. I mean only to say that for someone like the teenage me, the idea that I could adopt some of that culture for myself was meaningful—and an idea I wasn’t hearing much elsewhere.
I think this is what critic Jessa Crispin was getting at when she tweeted her response to the Barnes & Noble news: “Being from Kansas, where the B&N was 2.5 hours away but my only source for lit, I'm feeling for all those places about to be bookstore-less.” The internet fixes this, allegedly. If I were 16 now, I could theoretically discover Lipstick Traces on Amazon. But claiming that online retail negates the brick-and-mortar bookstore is like saying we don’t have to worry about socializing in person now that we have Facebook and Twitter.3 Ann Patchett and plenty of other booksellers have registered their argument on that point, much of which has to do with ideas Barnes & Noble promoted and nationalized: comfortable spaces, community events, a de facto support for literary culture (if only because it had books for sale), providing the perfect book for the person who wasn’t looking for the perfect book in the first place.
Your city’s independent did and—where they persist—still does all that, but it has not been able to do this: leverage the kind of scale that allowed Barnes & Noble to bring that sensibility to suburban communities that would otherwise be bookstore deserts. Bookstores are still meaningful to malls, as one chain owner told the Wall Street Journal: “They still do a strong volume, they bring in traffic, people socialize.” Plenty of other retailers have embraced Barnes & Noble’s third-place model, which may be one of the reasons for Barnes & Noble’s retreat. It’s possible that Starbucks wrecked the suburban chain bookseller just as much as Amazon did.
Regardless, Borders’ evaporation and Barnes & Noble’s trimming is a lamentable occurence. I’m no longer a Waldenbooks kind of book shopper, but I can’t deny the role that chain-store shopping played in making me a reader. I’d consider a pilgrimage to the source of my enlightenment, but Waldenbooks died with Borders, and the North Riverside Park Mall no longer has a bookstore.
Mark Athitakis is a writer and editor in Washington, D.C. He blogs at markathitakis.com.