In which we mourn yet another bookstore
BY SUZI STEFFEN AND MOLLY TEMPLETON
If you Google “independent bookstore closing,” you will find yourself staring down a depressingly large number of resulting pages. The sources range from tiny blogs to Publishers Weekly and The New York Times; the stores in question are all over the country. The stories are always different; the stories are always the same.
“It is hard not to take this as a sign of the times,” said The Huffington Post when L.A.’s Dutton’s Brentwood Books closed last month. In March, Canada’s oldest bookstore closed. Early in 2007, the American Booksellers Association reported that nearly 100 independent bookstores opened their doors in 2006, and while those brave souls give us hope, we worry that even they can’t stem this tide.
To our dismay, we now find ourselves writing a story to add to the list of indie bookstore closure reports. Last week, we started swearing when we heard the news: Books Without Borders, the little bookstore inside the Strand, will close on May 31.
We swore at Borders, at Barnes & Noble, at people who tell independent bookstore owners not to order a book — “That’s OK; I can get it from Amazon!” — at people who never venture downtown because they’re alarmed by the smelly kids, at ourselves for spending money at Powells instead of at BWoB. Words like “evil corporations” were tossed around along with thoughts like, “But who will chat with us about our obsession with young adult books and fantasy series?”
Owner Amelia Reising, who spent long hours creating partnerships with community organizations, making her little corner store inviting with chalk drawings, plants and handlettered signs, writing book recommendations and getting to know her loyal customers, decided it was time to let the store go. Revenue in April fell 25 percent from last April (last year’s sales were influenced in part by preorders for the final Harry Potter), and that was just too alarming.
From our point of view, it’s a tragedy. A small tragedy, nothing like the typhoon in Burma or the earthquake in China. Just another small bookstore shut down — a local loss that’s been repeated over and over worldwide since monster stores like Borders and Barnes & Noble spread like Ebola, since Amazon and other online booksellers made it easy not to leave home or work, since Wal-Mart and Costco started discounting books as if they were tires or bulk toilet paper.
Yes, larger corporations can offer more health insurance and benefits. Yes, those large box bookstores offer coffee shops and room for kids to run around trashing the childrens’ book section and comfy chairs to fall asleep in. And it’s not as if the workers in those stores hate books (not usually, at least). But personality — that gets lost.
One of us grew up in a city and remembers the thrill of the first Borders, then a very small Midwestern chain. She went to Borders a lot. ‘Twas brightly lit with spaces to hang out, a large selection of magazines and a coffee shop, not to mention an entire section of books about The Gay. But when the stream of business to the shiny new toy killed the small, independent bookstore that employed her, she started to worry. Then a Barnes & Noble invasion took out a store — Whistler’s Books — whose warm wooden floors and quirky poetry stock, local musician concerts and knowledgeable staff had served her well throughout high school and the early days of college. Sad. The other grew up here and remembers being sent to the UO Bookstore (before it was a Duck Store) as a young girl, just enough money in her pockets for a new paperback, and remembers the lure of the Willamette Street Smith Family’s endless shelves of half-hidden treasures (even before it got a facelift). She also remembers working in a Manhattan Barnes & Noble that dismayed her with the way its management didn’t care about books — except as product, as revenue. Not as things to love.
Books Without Borders represented a fighting spirit: Reising and a former co-owner had both worked at the charming BookMark for years before that store closed, and they decided to open the smaller store knowing full well how frustrating it could be to watch a well-beloved small business fall through the cracks.
In February, Reising wrote an impassioned open letter to Kitty Piercy that ran in our letters section, asking her to consider “shopping in locally owned downtown businesses and asking others to do the same.”
We can’t save Books Without Borders now. But maybe we can help other quirky, personality driven, wonderful downtown and independent small businesses in honor of Reising’s generous, thoughtful spirit, and in honor of all that is small.
Books Without Borders holds a Last Hurrah from 6 pm to 8 pm Saturday, May 24, at the store at 8th and Charnelton. Local authors will sign books and local bands will perform; proceeds from the $5 cover charge will help the bookstore cover the costs of donating their remaining children’s books to Books for Kids, which distributes books to underprivileged Oregon kids.