Personal Sadness, Professional Irrelevance


Pete Croatto

A few months ago, a friend asked if I spent a lot of money on books. My fiancée and I have a giant bookcase in our living room. Three more—tall and proud and ripe with history and potential—stand behind my desk, filled to capacity. I understand how someone might think that our need for books wages a monthly battle with utilities and groceries.

It doesn't, of course. Book lovers know of innumerable, thrifty ways to get our fix: libraries, library sales, flea markets, the Internet, used and independently owned bookstores, garage sales, dollar stores, gifts, charity tables (put a dollar in a water jug, grab a book), thrift stores, stoop takeaways (big in Brooklyn, where friends and family live). Even my gym is a wonderful source. A dollar gets you a paperback; two dollars, a hardcover.

The imminent demise of Borders doesn't surprise me. From a professional standpoint, I won't miss it. The store could never find a way to cater to the insatiable, crafty book buyer, the one who can fill a shelf with ten dollars and a little imagination. As a shopper, I only went there to kill time, buy something for a friend, or take advantage of a gift card.

Putting my cultural criticism on hold for a moment, the news stings. When I haven't written for a living, I've worked in bookstores. I spent 18 months at two Borders locations. The year I spent stocking shelves and answering phones at the East Brunswick, NJ branch (R.I.P., Store 42) was easily the most fun I've ever had at a job. My co-workers were funny and bright and sarcastic. The regulars were either friendly or extras lost from a David Lynch movie. I interacted with every possible segment of society. Forced to make an impression with attractive women in a register transaction, my flirting skills blossomed.

What's truly sad is that for writers—especially those who don't live in a city—Borders was a dream employer. The hours were flexible. I could borrow any book or browse magazines for freelancing possibilities. Inspiration was everywhere, from a coworker's quip to a random shelf. Being an ambassador for my passion gave the job an altruistic air, and it spared me from hawking snow shovels at Lowe's or describing the bologna alfredo at Olive Garden. I'll always be grateful for Borders, because it made me realize how big the written universe was.

Borders's rash of store closings doesn't spell doomsday for that universe. People still read, and (I hope) enjoy it. The act is just done through different media. What Borders's demise signifies is that the model of the big-box bookstore doesn't work. People look and linger, but they rarely buy anything. Relying on the shopping habits of browsers and on gift-heavy holidays only takes you so far, especially if you're in an area of commercial real estate generally reserved for car dealerships.

Consider the East Brunswick store. Most customers would purchase a drink and then spend hours in the cafe taking advantage of the free Wi-Fi. Or they'd grab an array of magazines fit for a doctor's office, claim an empty table in the cafe, and fritter away the hours. (This happened all the time, not just on weekends.) Teens would stage a nerd-in at the Manga aisle, enjoying their cartoon tales with complete disregard for the principles of commerce. Folks would park their broad behinds in overstuffed chairs and sit back with a book or two—unpaid, of course. At my first Borders, a colleague told me that a woman visited the store for a solid week and read the same book until she finished it.

Now we're seeing what happens when a company markets itself as a community center: Customers aren't required to buy anything. What also hurts is the still-sagging economy—people who have less disposable income will find other ways to satisfy their yen for DVDs, bestsellers, and specialty, pricey coffees—and over-expansion. When I lived in central New Jersey, at one point I could reach six big-box bookstores in under twenty-five minutes. No book lover needs that many options. Neither does the general public. We're not talking about supermarkets or gas stations.

One negative about Borders and Barnes & Noble’s shaky futures is that the stores provide a nice entry into the reading life. But libraries offer a similarly dazzling introduction, complete with free Internet access, tasty muffins, comfortable seating, and lots of events. The reduced presence of the gargantuan bookstore may allow for the rediscovery of one of the great American institutions. If they're left standing after all the government cutbacks, which is a tragedy for another essay.

And if you still want to build a book collection, I can offer a few suggestions.


Pete Croatto’s essays, criticism, and humor writing have appeared in MAD, Publishers Weekly, BookPage, AMC, and the (Newark) Star-Ledger. He also reviews movies for ICON and The Weekender, and maintains a movie blog. A longtime Mets fan, Pete currently lives in Bucks County, PA, which is Phillies territory. Pray for him. Contact Pete.



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