A lifetime ago, on a lovely fall afternoon as I sat, ostensibly studying, beneath a big shady tree with my college beau David on the University of Michigan Diag, a perfectly puppy-looking puppy bounded up to greet us. This brown bundle of adorable was trailed by a sad young couple, one member carrying a large bag of Puppy Chow, and the other a tiny leash and collar.
“We thought our landlord allowed dogs,” they explained. Neither David nor I had ever owned a dog, but we were smitten. We agreed to take the dog on an “experimental” basis and we held tight to the couple’s phone number, just in case, but we knew we would keep him. He had chosen us under that tree, and we couldn’t let him down.
He also wasn’t trained. At all.
So we didn’t walk straight home with the pup. Before he even had a name, we walked (the puppy trotted) into the one and only Borders’ bookshop on State Street, headed to the back of the store and up the stairs, and picked out and purchased a few key books on puppy training before heading home to face the roommates.
Step One: puppy. Step Two: bookstore.
These sweet memories come back to me now in the wake of the news of the Borders’ Group bankruptcy.
I like to think that if I were in the same position today, I would have headed over to a bookstore, and maybe I would have. The need was immediate and not e-book-able. Instructional information that requires repeated reference and quick page flips still works best in a physical book; you have to be able to jump in a second from “peed on the carpet” to “chewed up your shoe,” and to notice and physically hold on to the page of “important puppy vaccinations” as you glide by.
Would I have Googled first? Probably.
But what underlay that trip to that bookstore was more complicated. I felt proud and giddy walking my new puppy (and boyfriend) into the uniquely warm bookstore, and I was tickled by the employees’ puppy-welcome attitude. It all seemed ultra-collegiate with a little residual hippy cool.
So now I wonder: Is it the thousands upon thousands of “Google firsts” that broke Borders’ back, or the increasing popularity of ebook fiction, or the mighty Amazon? Or flight of the top managers back in the 90s when the chain was purchased (and, a few years later, spun off) by Kmart? The perennial online catch-up behind B&N? The super-sizing?
Or could it be something else—something admittedly biased and simplistic? Maybe mass marketing and books just aren’t a natural fit. Maybe something as wonderful and personal as a book is best produced by a passionate and smallish publisher or imprint, and sold through a number of dedicated and smallish venues.
When I landed my first publishing job—pre B&N, pre Borders expansion–book chains offering big discounts were necessary evils that seemed to exist just to get books into suburban malls (where independents didn’t seem to want to be, anyway). The independently owned stores were the path to successful publishing of reader-driven new titles. Of course mass market books had their place; but they were a component and not the whole. The road to recognition of fresh voices lay directly through engaging the individual passion of a sharp bookseller. Books, and bookselling, were personal.
Books still are personal.
My heart breaks for the soon to be jobless Borders employees, and for what the loss of Borders stores will do to my struggling and crucial industry.
But in all this pain I find hope in the fact that while by and large book chains haven’t yet found sustainable success–they rise and explode and destroy all the independent bookstores in their wakes, and fall and buy each other’s remains (rinse and repeat)—individual books, fresh books, original and smart books, still find their ways to readers in fairly constant numbers. The urge of passionate readers to find and recommend remarkable books has not changed, while chain after chain (and publisher after publisher, but that’s a different story) attempt and fail to turn what are essentially unique products—each one–into a predictable mass commodity.
I wouldn’t have been drawn to current Borders with my puppy, and I don’t think they would have let me in.
Will enough independent, physical bookstores manned by business-savvy book lovers arise again to sustain the human selling of physical and electronic books, and save the individuality and freshness of my industry? Will this be possible in the face of Amazon and digitalization and all that means?
I don’t know. But I hope so.
Neither the beau nor the puppy lasted forever in my life. But I did have a good long run with each. Humphrey (the pup) became the toast of Ann Arbor and later Chicago, and was frequently seen dashing next to me and/or David as we rode our bikes through town (he stopped at every street corner to wait for traffic—the books worked).
Temporary joys, permanent in their impact. Like the Borders’ bookshop. The Borders’ Group? Not…so much.