If you are a bookstore aficionado you can’t have avoided noticing how they have deteriorated over the last ten years. Fewer books, less variety, more open spaces and chairs, fewer people, most of whom are there to drink coffee and work on their laptops using free Wifi connections — it’s hard to pin it down exactly, but the bookstores today are just not as good as they used to be. Are they going the way of video stores (e.g. Blockbuster which is dying) or CD stores (e.g. Tower Records, already deceased)? I can make a quick judgment of the quality of a bookstore by two tests: how many different Thomas Hardy books they stock and how large their computer book section is. At the Borders near Park Meadows Mall outside of Denver back in the 1990’s every Thomas Hardy book, even the obscure ones, from Desperate Remedies to The Hand of Ethelbertha, was there, alongside the more common Tess of the D’Urbervilles and The Return of the Native, in multiple editions (Penguin, Oxford, others). Nowadays, you’ll find a handful of the latter famous books, in some generic Barnes and Noble edition (Hardy wrote several versions of his books — the Penguin editions contain his first version and the Oxford edition his last, so the edition is important) and none of the more obscure novels. I don’t think there is anything unique about Thomas Hardy books, the same thing is true if you look at Charlotte Bronte (where is a copy of The Professor?), or Thackerary (you might find Vanity Fair, but good luck finding Pendennis), and so forth. The thinning out of the Thomas Hardy selection over time is just a symptom of the general malaise that is afflicting bookstores, gradually sapping them of their strength. The other barometer is the size of the computer book section. Back in the 90’s the computer book section at the above mentioned Borders took up a whole corner of the building. There was shelf after shelf of computer books, whole walls just devoted to C++ books alone. Nowadays at the downtown Borders in Louisville, KY there is one side of one shelf with computer books. That’s it. As for the huge Borders near Park Meadows Mall outside of Denver — it’s closed. Out of Business. Very sad.
Of course it’s all due to economics, to electronic book readers, to the iPad, to the Internet, to Amazon.com, and so forth. And it’s good for the trees. True enough. But I fear the downfall of the traditional bookstore is also due to fewer people reading books, to a general lack of interest in books and reading — in short to illiteracy. I could have written a post “What’s Happened To The Libraries?” to make the same point. Libraries have become a place for free Internet access, much like Starbucks without the coffee. The books are still there, but are ignored. Oh I know there are still plenty of book lovers out there. But we are a dying breed. I remember with great joy going to the Universal Books Store on 5th Street in Philadelphia as a teen and seeing the newly minted glossy covers of the Ace and Ballentine editions of Edgar Rice Burroughs books, or even more special, going downtown to Leary’s Bookstore, where I purchased the Ace book edition of The Fellowship of the Ring when it first came out in the 1960’s. Sure, now I can get any book I want on Amazon — in some ways it is better for a book lover nowadays then back when I was growing up. But I miss the browsing experience, the thrill of discovery, the impulse purchase that opens up a new author and new literary world at a bookstore, and am saddened to see this change.