catalog news 002: elegy for big box bookstores
by roryaugust 30, 2023

Though I live in Brooklyn today, I grew up in the deep suburbs of the San Francisco Bay Area. Our town was the kind of town that was exactly above-average in all areas: more diverse than not, more safe and well-maintained than not, comfortably middle-class, with above-average proximity to both San Francisco and Silicon Valley, with above-average schools, and all at above-average home prices. In short, it was (and probably still is) the perfect place to buy a home if you want to raise B+ students, which it turns out many people do. Out of the five public high schools in town, the high school I attended matched the profile of the town to a T: good all-around, neither the best nor the worst, with demographics exactly representing the makeup of the town, decent sports teams, and a homecoming king and queen who were not only physically attractive in a wholesome way, but would certainly be going to good universities.

And in our town, there was a time in which a huge Barnes & Noble bookstore and a huge Borders bookstore sat across the street from each other, each an anchor of its own outdoor shopping center and each flanked by a massive parking lot. It was the age when Starbucks was an up-and-comer, when it shocked the business world by opening a location on every corner, betting that instead of cannibalizing each other, the coffee shops would all contribute to boosting Starbucks' brand recognition, which would in turn boost their business—a bet that paid off handsomely for them. Whether the Borders set up shop across from the Barnes & Noble out of pure competitiveness, or whether they had some sort of mutual boosting strategy in mind, or whether that spot was simply the best real estate available to them regardless of competition, I'll never know. Most crucially for me, both were within walking distance of my high school.

The bookstores were within walking distance of my high school, but my house wasn't. To get home I usually took the public bus, which came every forty minutes or so (a time interval the bus operators interpreted very liberally). If I missed the bus, which I usually did, I'd cross the street to hang out at one of the big bookstores. As punctuality was not a concern of mine in those days and there was nothing to do at home anyway (I never did homework, on principle), instead of making the next bus time, I was more likely to just spend the rest of the afternoon in the store and get home sometime before dinner. Eventually I just went directly to the bookstore after school whenever I didn't have something social going on, which most days I didn't.

I tended to favor the Borders unless looking for something specific, but what both bookstores had in common was that I could easily lose three hours in either one without noticing, which is something I have rarely experienced in smaller stores since those days. The Barnes & Noble had a somewhat stodgier vibe—the company was literally nearly a hundred years older than Borders, the store was established in our town long before the Borders arrived, and its shelves were taller and made you feel small. Borders was young, vibrant, with low-slung shelves that let you see across the entire store.

There were specific aspects of how the stores operated that made it so easy to spend whole afternoons or evenings in them. One of the most important, I think, that I don't often see people talk about, is that you could sit down on the floor next to any shelf, for as long as you wanted. The floor was carpeted and clean, the aisles were wide enough that you wouldn't block other people if you sat down, and the employees didn't say anything or even appear to notice. Another policy that went hand in hand with that is that you could read an entire book, while sitting on the floor, without buying it—even fancy coffee-table books had at least one copy with the shrink wrap removed so that it could be read, and again, the employees wouldn't look twice. The floor copies were meant to be flipped through, sampled, or even read all the way through, and the companies seemed to have decided that any damage or loss of sales was worth the better, less rule-bound experience. The Borders even had its own cafe where you were free to sit down with books you hadn't bought, read them over a coffee, and leave the whole pile at the table. (The Barnes & Noble had an adjacent Starbucks, which wasn't in the store so you had to buy your books first, but there was a dedicated entrance between the two as a nod to the coffee-and-books lifestyle.)

Immigrant kids went through entire manga series that way, by coming in whenever they had time and reading on the floor in each other's company. Immigrant parents were around all the time too, to have their kids go through college prep materials, for free. (Once they managed to peel them away from the manga aisle.) The selection at these bookstores wasn't highbrow, nor lowbrow—it was all-brow. And the impersonalness of not being noticed or remembered by the employees was precisely what I needed, as a painfully self-conscious teenager who was there to explore my random curiosities and obsessions.

My style was to get a latte to-go and roam around the store with it, sitting down to read anything that caught my eye. (Once out of school, one so easily forgets how much of a relief it used to be just to put one's backpack down.) If there weren't too many words in a book, I often read it in full in one sitting: the aforementioned coffee-table books (PostSecret! typography books!); collections of life advice that were more graphic design than substance; graphic novels. Books that were full-length, I often read a few chapters of and sometimes bought to finish at home—books of every imaginable stripe and all of the brows: the Beats (Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg) and their other druggie friends like Hunter S. Thompson (it was a phase); advice for wannabe writers, which is what I was; self-help and productivity; pop Christian theology (yes, a real genre); military memoirs; SAT study guides and college advice. More than anything else, what I remember is the feeling of being completely unpoliced—explicitly or implicitly, physically or intellectually. I picked up totally surprising mini-obsessions, tried them on for a while by reading every single book on the topic, let them go, let them return later or never again. That omnivorous, roaming process of figuring out what I was into is what shaped the person I was by the time I graduated.

(There was no general-purpose indie bookstore, in my town of a quarter million people, for at least as long as I have been sentient. It just so happened that the two bookstores we had in the whole town were on my way home. I liked the public library too, in case you're wondering, but it had that condition that all children of the suburbs would be familiar with: to get to the library I would've needed a ride, and I didn't have one. It was simple as that.)

After high school, I moved to New York ASAP. On visits home, I'd stop in at the old big bookstores of my youth. Over time, one closed down, then the other. I don't know if it was the rise of Amazon that did them in, or if their business models were inherently unsustainable (what with the massive real estate footprint and the free-to-read policies), or a little of both. (Across the country, Borders went out of business completely by 2011, while Barnes & Noble hung on and is still around today, just not in my hometown.) The Barnes & Noble was replaced by a supermarket (for some years an organic foods supermarket, today a Korean supermarket, which is excellent by the way). The special door to the Starbucks was filled in, and today is just a wall. The Starbucks is still open. Borders' space has had so many subsequent occupants that failed, I don't even remember what's there now.

The best bookstore in town today, which sits just a couple of doors down from the old Borders, is a Half Price Books, which is also a nationwide chain with a huge warehouse space, but for secondhand books. That feels appropriate: the kind of bookstore that can survive in my hometown today isn't a retailer of new books, but a store that constantly circulates the community's books back to itself. (For example, it effectively serves as the town's English-class bookstore, recirculating copies of Catcher in the Rye and The Great Gatsby from year to year at low cost. It's also got a great collection of slightly-outdated programming books, which I get a kick out of perusing. And it's the place to go for last year's SAT prep and college rankings.) Even though it's not as friendly for floor-sitting and doesn't have a cafe, in some ways it's even more laid-back than the B&N/Borders were. The employees at my town's Half Price are not the fresh-faced polo-wearing twentysomethings of B&N/Borders, adrift after undergrad (the Garden State phase of life, I like to call it), but more the older, queerer, D&D-playing misfits who could've equally been found at the back desk of your local comic book store or video rental warehouse (RIP). Most importantly, I see the same kinds of folks browsing around the store as I used to in the B&N/Borders: namely, everyone.

Glenn and I are absolute superfans of small indie bookstores, we're building our catalog project in large part with them in mind, and I don't shed any tears for the Barnes & Nobles and the Borderses of the world, who shut down plenty of indie bookstores in their heyday. What I do mourn is what that kind of space was for the vast array of different people who spent their hours there. Much as I adore my local indie bookstore, I can't deny that my own immigrant parents wouldn't feel as comfortable walking into one, or that I couldn't picture some punk preteens ditching school to sit on the floor there and read manga for the entire day. Why that's so, I leave as an exercise to the reader, to consider whether you would say the same, and why. As we start to build a space of our own, I'm trying to keep this in mind: to make it a space where anyone feels free to like or get curious about anything, free to compile lists of books on their latest obsessions, from the most obscure to the most mainstream; to hop from topic to topic and follow their attention wherever it leads, to get lost for hours exploring a flurry of new connections. Shaping the space we share, being shaped by it in turn.