Closed Book

As Borders Books and Music picturesquely devolves into a pick-a-part lot—All fixtures for sale! See liquidation manager!—the parlor game of the month among people who drink coffee at Borders, skim the books and order them from Amazon is to ask, Why, God, why?

The obvious answer is that everything is closing. The Great Recession, in this view, is an equal-opportunity earth-scorcher, requiring no romantic explanations. If the Borders closure is attributable to the Death of the Book, shall we chalk up the unraveling of Talbots to the Death of Clothes? Alas, the demise of a ladies-wear shop still leaves us with a thousand Lofts, but when Borders sells its last Potter plush toy, we’ll have only the odd Barnes & Noble. So perhaps this is a special case.

This means we must reach beyond mere economics for answers, into the murky waters of culture. Here we encounter the smug answer: Borders failed to adapt to changing times! But what can such an answer mean to a bricks-and-mortar bookstore except: “Just quit now”? And any regular Borders visitor has to have noticed that the place did, indeed, try to adapt over the last decade, primarily by selling stationery decorated with kittens.

Next on our journey of truth, we encounter the sophisticated urban answer, offered by J. Patrick Coolican in the Las Vegas Sun: The Borders collapse signals young people’s repudiation of the big-box store. I like this one, because it offers hope. If the Angel of Bankruptcy has alighted upon the doors of big-box stores not because of high rents and excessive inventory, but because of the aesthetic predilections of our hip youth, then we should soon see a renaissance of small, odd shops. The death of the big-box could do for suburbia what the eclipse of mid-2000s skyscraper mania did for Fremont East: Bring rent pressures down, encourage smaller-scale thinking and make space available for independent entrepreneurs. How about carving up a big-box and making it a marketplace for a bunch of indies—a warren of themed mini-bookshops, some stocked with Proust, others with discounted posters of Edward Cullen?

There are other possibilities: The building bubble and the brief heyday of kinda-sorta New Urbanism (otherwise known as The Year 2006) coincided, leaving the Valley with a bunch of cute little bank-owned strip malls. The units are small—the perfect size for, say, Meg Ryan’s bookstore in You’ve Got Mail—and each shop invariably gets its own blue awning. Perhaps some sort of grand bargain can be struck between wild-eyed, would-be booksellers (who need low rent) and the prospective landlords of our retail ghost towns (who need tenants). After all, they’re both crazy. And erstwhile Borders aficionados need to go somewhere, don’t they? In this scenario, the collapse of the big-box Goliath reanimates a hundred comatose Davids.

That’s the Hollywood ending. The European art-film ending, on the other hand, was presupposed in the glorious final line of Richard Lake’s recent Las Vegas Review-Journal piece on the fall of Borders:

“The Internet is killing everything!”

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