The Bookstore Is Dead, Long Live the Bookstore

According to Julie Bosman in her article "Literary City, Bookstore Desert" in today's New York Times, the end is nigh for bookstores in New York.

The pleasant idyll of strolling around a bookstore, glancing at covers, opening a page, reading a bit and having a chat with the person who takes your money and hands you your book in a paper bag, is all but gone on account of laziness, convenience, gimmickry and greed.

What can be more pleasant than walking down a street with magic in your hand and excitement in your heart at the thought of settling down with a cup of tea, and opening a new book that may become a new friend?

Yet this simple pleasure has been chipped away by those who harbor nascient thoughts of reading, but no longer feel the need of real books made of real paper to do so -- hence the demise of bookstores.

Oh yes, they say, I have five books on my Kindle. And I'm taking them all to Bermuda this spring. I'm sure they will. Holing up in New York after this Polar-Vortex of a winter, I'm sure they trawled through Amazon and compiled a list of books for their "shopping cart" with nary a word of friendly advice from a clerk who may be smarter than they are.

The Goldfinch because, well, it's Donna Tartt, Le Weekend because they just saw the film, Fifty Shades of Grey or because they must read it before they see the film, Of Mice and Men because they read it in High School, and they really want to see the play, and Grace Coddington's memoir, 'cause they're into fashion.

Has reading descended to a literary laundry list like this? I'm afraid so. I doubt the owner of the Kindle will really read any of these books. But they'll own them. They'll possess them, all five of them stashed away in a little gizmo in a tote bag. Literary happiness, insured by flicking through one book, then another and forgetting what they've read, because all words on a screen look alike.

Remember when you read one book at a time? Really read it, and if it got you, you read it again. Remember, when New York bookstores were landmarks. Like Scribner's, with its wrap 'round balcony, that anchored Fifth Avenue. And Rizzoli, still anchoring 57th Street, but about to be demolished and replaced by a soulless glass high rise with (I'm sure) no place for bookshelves.

According to Bosman's article, many of New York's independent bookstores are shuttered because of rising rents. Five Barnes & Noble stores have closed since 2007, including its former flagship store on Fifth Avenue and 18th street -- the store where I bought my high school textbooks.

That I mourn this chain store befuddles me, for I only patronize independent bookstores. Yet, it was the Barnes & Noble in Rochester, NY and the Barnes & Noble in Greenwich Village, that gave me readings (and put a poster in the window) when my memoir, I'll Know It When I See It came out in paperback in 2005.

Here at my desk I'm surrounded by books. Books bought at stores now transmogrified into shoe stores and nail salons. As my eyes glance around, I see Endicott Books on Amsterdam Avenue, where I bought A Winter's Tale. The Coliseum near Columbus Circle, in business for 33 years, where I'd trawl through tables of guide books and maps and dream of foreign lands. A Different Light, the gay and lesbian bookstore in Chelsea that carried any book tangentially referring to anything gay, like Peter Pan.

These stores once were my friends. They are now my Madeleines. I see them all, and me in them as a child, as a teenager, as a young woman. I see me alone, sometimes lonely, me with men I dated, me with girlfriends, me with my husband. Everyone blissfully happy, walking around silently browsing through books, glorious books from which we hoped, indeed we knew, we'd gain knowledge.

I ask you what is the pleasure in an ebook? What is the pleasure in a Kindle? Is the pleasure simply that of convenience? That one can carry around many "books" without clutter, without weight. Without having to bother opening up a real book in search of where you left off because you didn't place a bookmark. Where you'll have to reread a few pages to get back to where you were, only to enjoy it even more.

Is this true? Is there so much pleasure in convenience? I hope not. The last paragraph of Joyce's Ulysses gets even better every time I read it.

So I say, "be brave" to Sarah McNally who is opening a branch of her New York bookstore, McNally Jackson, in Brooklyn. You are doing a service to humanity and to the history of bookstores in New York.