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Brick-and-Mortar Bookstores: Bordering on Extinction

Wherever it takes place, the experience of hands-on browsing in a bookstore is physically, emotionally, and spiritually transformational.

There is something magical about a bookstore.

It doesn't matter if it is a mom-and-pop shop bulging with gently read volumes and located on a two-lane country highway or a large chain store featuring New York Times best-sellers in its window in the middle of a busy urban mall. It is irrelevant whether the proprietor gives a customer change from coins and bills secured in a worn cigar box or if employees use the latest technology at the checkout counter.

Wherever it takes place, the experience of hands-on browsing in a bookstore is physically, emotionally, and spiritually transformational.

It is as if we lose track of time and enter an alternate universe alive with the efforts of fellow humans to make sense of history, biology, culture, and themselves through the written word. We become relaxed, happy, and humbled to be a small part of this intergenerational community of thinkers and artists.   

Whether shelves are stacked from floor to ceiling or are waist-high, one can find familiar authors or stumble upon new voices. Each volume can be held, thumbed through, and read in depth for a few pages. The eye is drawn to paintings, photographs, and other illustrations that bring a smile or involuntary "wow."   

If we are lucky, there are tables and comfortable chairs to sit while sampling books and magazines. Coffee and muffins may be available for a minimal price. Sometimes there are boxes of books and periodicals that are free for the taking.

Bookstores are places where customers and salespeople often exchange opinions on a writer's latest effort and/or the state of the world in general. Some host public appearances by authors who share why they are motivated to write. Others offer space for aspiring poets and writers to gather and share their works in progress.

As federal and foundation monies to support the arts continue to decline, bookstores actively encourage both writing and reading, as well as providing motivation for people of all ages to befriend their inner muse. 

Unfortunately, these book-selling venues are also in danger of becoming extinct. 

Another Bookstore Chain Closes

Borders is the latest casualty to make headlines by declaring bankruptcy last July and closing their remaining community stores in September.

This chain, founded in 1971 and at one time having more than 1,200 stores internationally, could not compete profitably with online competitors and the public's increasing preference for electronic books and readers. 

I suspect it is just a matter of time before the other giant book retailer – Barnes & Noble – also retires from the brick-and-mortar market and chooses to sell their products exclusively online. B&N has already closed all of their 798 B. Dalton mall outlets and announced plans to consolidate their 717 "superstores." 

While I have not been able to find any recent statistics on the number of independent booksellers closing their doors, the last figure of 1,000 such bookstores closing between 2000 and 2007 is sobering. Given the decline in our economy since that time, it can only be expected that this number has increased significantly.

How then can we assure that the benefits of the bookstore experience be preserved for future generations?

Parents, Be Innovative!

While there is little we can do to stem the tide of bookstore closings, it is important to expose our children and grandchildren to the tactile nature of books and assist them to develop a love of reading. 

Given that there is a movement to e-books and electronic readers that will likely be incorporated into the school systems, what can a parent do to foster a hands-on relationship with books?

  • Use your local library. Take advantage of storytelling hours for kids and help them explore the variety of books and magazines at their reading level. While it involves more work to look through stacks of books as opposed to the smaller and sometimes more colorful sections in a bookstore, the same effect can be realized.
  • Make sure your child has his or her own library card and is responsible for the physical care of the book and for reminding you of the due date. If he or she is young, create a family reading hour in which all members participate.
  • Obtain or maintain a sampling of inexpensive softcover and hardcover books that are age-appropriate for your child. Buy or build a small bookcase to highlight them. Garage sales offer many used books for less than a dollar.
  • Maintain a print library for the adults in the house and take time to read them. There is nothing better than a role model delighting in the contents of a book to inspire a child to want to do the same!

Using Community Resources

It is also important to create new venues to bring the arts to the public and encourage existing and future generations of poets and writers to learn and share their craft. 

  • Ask the local library to sponsor visits from authors and public readings of their works. Put up flyers and spread the word via the Lawrenceville Patch for people to attend.
  • Talk to religious organizations about using their facility for meetings of aspiring writers and critique groups for more experienced authors. Search out the published poets and writers in the community to assist in running these groups.
  • Ask the library to periodically exhibit the publications of local authors. Attend these events with your children.
  • Most important, if your child is so inclined, encourage him or her to write, draw, paint, and/or use whatever medium of artistic expression he or she is drawn to. Encourage these efforts and send copies to relatives. Have a reading or exhibit in your own living room and invite the neighbors.

The above lists are just a beginning set of suggestions. What are your ideas for fostering creativity and love of reading in your family and the Lawrence Township community?

JEAN ANDERSON November 15, 2011 at 06:27 PM
Encouraging all libraries to have book sales of donated books allows many more people to have the 'book-in-hand' experience. With lives so busy, it's a special treat to own the book, to be read without the pressure of a 'due date.' My mother followed many of those suggestions many decades ago, for which I am forever grateful.

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