James Carroll

As stores die, so does book culture

By James Carroll
July 25, 2011

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THE LIQUIDATION of Borders Books, announced last week, is like the death of an unlikely friend - unlikely because Borders was itself implicated in the slow-motion degradation of the culture of the book.

The story began in 1971, when brothers Tom and Louis Borders, students at the University of Michigan, established a book shop in Ann Arbor. They were among the first to grasp the potential of digital technology, inventing software that revolutionized how inventories were tracked. Borders became a book-selling powerhouse. The company proved insufficiently nimble, though, when online ordering - via Amazon or the Barnes & Noble website - transformed the point of sale, and digital files - via Kindle, Nook, or iPad - replaced paper publication entirely. The technology that made Borders boom ultimately killed it.

But the whole saga of books across these decades is a cautionary tale of loss. Once, bookstores were not unlike churches. In cities and university towns, they were ubiquitous, and readers moved along the endless rows of shelves as if along communion rails. The book itself was sacred. If entering its sanctuary was an essentially solitary act, still there was a bracing solidarity between bookseller and buyers, and then among readers. The apostolic succession ran from writer to editor to publicist to critic to merchandiser to clerk to customer to everyone else who loved the book. Public conversation took off from “published” ideas. How easy to imagine the book-loving spell under which the Borders brothers fell at the start.

The massive expansion of which they were both cause and exemplar was good news. Suddenly, malls had book outlets, too - B. Dalton, Waldenbooks, Crown - and the literary culture was no longer limited to cities and college enclaves. Then came the big boxes - Borders and Barnes & Noble. Small towns and suburbs became reading centers, too. The megastores stocked bestsellers, but also deep inventories of classic literature. Their very ubiquity, though, and their volume-based capacity to discount, made the big stores mortal enemies of the old mainstay, now subtly denigrated as the “independent.”

The larger the chains’ market share became, the more power chains exercised over the whole publishing enterprise. Soon, the corporate buyers from Borders and Barnes & Noble were as influential in what was acquired by editors as the editors themselves. 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 bestsellers. Profits once came, say, from 50,000 copies of Stephen King and 50,000 total copies of 10 other authors - authors like me, I should add. Now the money comes from 90,000 of King and 10,000 total of two others - with the other eight writers no longer able to get published. Without anyone quite understanding what was happening, the entire book culture was being gutted.

By the 1990s, the Borders brothers had been bought out, and the corporatizing of book selling was running at full bore. Independents were driven out of business everywhere. Publishers, too, went from being based on individual passions with local traditions to being international conglomerates defined by the bottom line - a mirror image of the retail side. The unforgiving dynamic of predatory capitalism had seized the book business by its throat.

The fate of Borders tells that story. The tragedy now is that, with the failure of the big boxes, which previously caused the failure of so many corner stores, not only will cities be left without bookstores; so will the rural and suburban malls that had embraced them. This is a massive cultural impoverishment.

Speculations abound concerning the deeper effects of screen technologies on a thoughtful inner life, and it is too soon to mourn the death of reading altogether. People love their e-books. The disappearance of the public book shelf, though, is not unrelated to the blatant new illiteracy that shows itself, at one end, in the shrinking number of published book reviews, and, at the other, in today’s shallow political discourse. Junk opinion replaces the astute analysis that only careful and well-edited authorship provides.

The business of Borders might be replaced online, but the web that matters most is intangibly of the spirit, and Borders was one of its master weavers. This is the death to mourn - and take warning from.

James Carroll’s column appears regularly in the Globe.