(REAL TIMES MEDIA)—Point of full disclosure: I am writing this column in a Borders Books, right next to the in-store coffee shop. In front of me is a middle-aged man conducting business; he’s got spreadsheets, calculators and a blue tooth in his ear. To my right is a group of five retired women playing an intense game of mah jong and chattering about their children’s financial lives in thick accents. Near the window a group of three teenagers discuss something with the intensity that only comes from being 16 years old with summer vacation coming to an end. I count a lot more people than cups of Seattle’s Best Coffee (the chain linked up with Borders) scattered throughout the store. As the news comes more and more rapidly that the two major book sellers in America (Borders Books and Barnes and Nobles) may be about to close their doors, it makes you wonder, we might not just be losing bookstores, but the last great public spaces in America.
While I am not prone to wax nostalgic, there was a time, in the late 1970s into the mid-1980s where public spaces were plentiful and diverse across the United States. There were community centers in major cities and suburbs, often attached to pools or next to major parks where kids played. It was easy for active parents to rent out the open area for parties, Cub Scout meetings and other social gatherings. Beyond that we had church basements, annexes, libraries and the occasional city center where people of all ages could meet, discuss and work through whatever business they liked. But with a mixture of demographic and financial changes in America we’ve seen a marked decline in the amount of public space that people have available to them.
With fewer stay-at-home parents, community pool hours have been limited across the nation. There just aren’t as many people filling them over the summer. Mix this with the fact that state budgets are spread as thin as tissue paper, leading to the curtailing of hours or downright closing of many libraries, community centers and public parks across the nation and you can see why public space, wherever you can find it, is so hard to come by. That’s why places like Borders and Barnes and Noble have become so important to American culture, both business and leisure.
Your average big bookstore serves as the modern day community center that America has been lacking. Walk into any major bookstore and you’ll see business being conducted, parents entertaining their kids with children’s books and various studying students and tutoring sessions all going on at the same time. For the working student they are a godsend. How many public libraries stay open until 10 p.m. during the weekend anymore, let alone during the week? But most Borders are open until 11 p.m. Despite the amazing amount of use these Barnes and Nobles and Borders books have brought our increasingly alienated and balkanized society, they’re all facing serious financial ruin. Why? For the very reasons they are popular.
In all of this discussion I have yet to mention books, because the reality is, people are no longer buying books (or movies or music) from brick and mortar bookstores. With Amazon.com and now the declining costs of e-books, Americans who want to actually buy books are going online or just downloading them. The same goes for movies and music, which you can grab online rather than drive to buy. With declining revenues, both booksellers have been desperately searching for buyers to stay afloat over the next 18 months. And I must admit, I’m part of the problem. I am a regular at my local Borders, using up the free Wi-Fi, drinking free water or drinks from home and reading magazines three or four times a week, and I probably haven’t spent money in a Borders in years. Americans need a community space, and if our tax dollars can no longer support them, we’ll find them at the local mall, among stacks of new best sellers, although it’s unfortunate that our need doesn’t translate into the dollars it might take for these stores to stay open. Hopefully the holiday season will bring both stores out of financial trouble in the coming months. I’d hate for both stores to close their doors. As a loyal customer, I will do my best to help as well, just as soon as I finish eating the free cookie samples they’re offering at the coffee shop.
(Dr. Jason Johnson is an associate professor at Hiram College in Ohio.)