News From Terre Haute, Indiana

August 8, 2011

The Off Season: Another sad passing: One-time trendsetter can’t keep up

Mike Lunsford
Special to the Tribune-Star

TERRE HAUTE — I wandered into the local mall bookstore the other day. My wife and I had come to town with a list of chores to do and things to buy, but whenever we venture anywhere near a place with book shelves and sales tables and racks of paperbacks, we’re attracted to the scent of ink and the sight of book covers like bees to clover .

The store in question, the Waldenbooks/Borders, is closing; it has been there since there was a mall, and the people I have come to know who work there are sad, not just because they’re out of a job, but because a place they have come to love will soon be gone.

Since I didn’t ask to use their names in this story, I won’t, but I do remember an impromptu conversation with one of the managers that hot afternoon, and she was clearly upset. She said one of the very best things about her job — she has been there for over 20 years — was seeing kids in the store with their parents, or even on their own, wandering around, mouths agape, picking and choosing and enthusiastically looking at books. She said she will miss that most of all. 

I know, I know; we need to get with the times.  The latest rage of e-readers has rendered real books made with paper passé. They are, we are reminded over and over again, old-fashioned, environmentally disastrous, bulky, space-wasting and expensive.

We need to get on board, charge our batteries, download a good book and quit whining, because we can’t swim against the tide that technology has sent to our beaches.  Besides, books aren’t going to go away, we are told; just the way we access what we read is changing.

I am comforted by that, but I wonder about the value of the bookstore — the actual place — where books, in any form can be found.

Why the store is closing is pretty obvious. The entire chain, of which this bookshop is just one of 399, is closing all of its doors. Bemoaned by reading purists 40 years ago that it was the cause that so many small, independent bookstores were blowing away in a wind of change, the company has not kept up with the times and has been put out of business.

My fear now is that there will be fewer and fewer places to go to buy books, other than through the web, of course. I have no argument against that practice either, for I have gone that route too, finding books that hide in warehouses from coast to coast and having them shipped to my door.

In all probability, I will buy an e-reader someday, a Nook or Kindle or whatever new item may soon come down the pike, and I’ll do it without losing sleep.

I have to admit that it is enticing, perhaps even smarter, for me to invest less than five hardback books’ worth of reading capital into a hand-held e-reader. I’ll have selection and sales at my fingertips, and I won't have to walk into a bookstore and hope someone helps me, or glance over countless books, hoping I'll find one that piques my interest. I won’t need to ramble through a field of sale books anymore, or strike up a conversation with someone doing the same thing. I’ll miss it all.

I like books. I think about them often, buy them often, enjoy seeing them on my shelves. I am reading a particularly good book right now as the result of my last trip to the store. Just a few days ago, as I made my way from my car to the front door of my doctor’s office, book in hand — for one never knows how long he'll have to wait there — I dropped it. I’m happy that in that instance I didn’t own an e-reader, or I’d have been sweeping my book into a trash bag.

We should not be singing dirges for reading just yet; statistics show that people who own e-readers actually buy more books than those who don’t. People are buying millions of them online, probably the main reason the mall store and its cousins nationwide died. No, finding a book, even pretty obscure titles, is easier than ever before. I do wish more kids were reading though.

Reading is alive and kicking; it’s the bookstore itself that is in trouble. With fewer outlets, big and small, readers have fewer choices, and because of that, publishers are narrowing the field, printing more copies of fewer titles. James Carroll wrote in a recent column for the Boston Globe: “An industry that had thrived on a wild diversity of taste and a near-infinite supply of manuscripts, mostly published in relatively small print runs, became ever more uniform, and ever more closed to all but big-name authors and potential best-sellers.”

Michael Dirda saw the writing on the bookselling wall five years ago when he published “Bound to Please.” (Yes, it is available for download.)  In it, he said, “To my mind, the real literacy crisis has less to do with the number of people reading than with the narrowing range of literary and intellectual works that Americans actually read.  More and more have been straightjacketed and brainwashed by the books of the moment, the passing moment.”

Although it seems as though I never run out of books to add to my “want list,” I am worried that there will be fewer places to buy them. Locally, we are still fortunate to have as many bookstores as we do; several of them even sell my books. I worry a bit, though, that over the next few years, I am going to have fewer bookstores to wander and explore. I wonder, as well, that if e-readers become the medium of choice for reading, what will happen to children if they or their parents can’t afford them. I am presuming that the price of such things will continue to drop, but I also think it would be difficult to find sale tables filled with used technology for a dollar or two.  For that reason alone, I hope that parents help their children become better acquainted with a local library.

The facts about reading and books and bookstores are mixed. A recent article at LiveScience.com touts a study by the University of Nevada that found that children who are raised in average homes with average incomes, but who have at least 500 books in the house, on average, attained at least three more years of education than those with no books. Another study found that people who read traditionally made books read them twice as fast as those who read them electronically.

But, the cold, hard fact remains: we are killing off traditional bookstores, and those of us who love them, including those folks I know who will be working for only a month or so at one, had better just read it and weep.

Mike Lunsford can be reached by e-mail at hickory913@aol.com or by writing to him c/o The Tribune-Star, P.O. Box 149, Terre Haute, IN 47808. Read more of Mike's stories at http://tribstar.com/mike_lunsford, and visit his website at www.mikelunsford.com.  His third collection of stories, “A Place Near Home,” is due to be released in October.