This week Borders Bookstores began a massive chapter 11 restructuring program to staunch the bleeding of cash in their company. They’ll be closing down 30% of their retail stores nationwide, and that has a real effect on people. But this is part of a much larger trend that we need to really look at.
Small and specialty bookstores in this economy have not been able to keep pace with the big box stores. A single quarter of low revenue could spell death for a small bookstore. That’s what drove my small endeavor into closure, people just weren’t buying, and we couldn’t afford to keep shelling out the cash from our own pockets to try to make it happen. That’s what happened with Lambda Rising as well. Property tax rising in Dupont Circle, low sales, and high overhead killed it. Sure, not all small bookstores have gone under, as we can see in this great article from Slate about the 57th Street Bookstore in Chicago. Also, local shops in DC like Politics and Prose and Kramerbooks & Afterwards have held up resiliently against the big box stores. Mostly, I think because they are mid-sized, and able to handle the economy of scale a little bit better than the specialty stores like Lambda Rising.
Similarly, public libraries are undergoing a serious crisis in funding. As all government agencies are hit by the downturn in the economy, via loss of tax revenues, public libraries are on the chopping block. Some systems are closing in their entirety, some partially, many are reducing hours, some are letting people go, and others are furloughing employees.
With libraries falling apart, small bookstores clinging to life, and big box stores going under, what we’re really looking at here is an information crisis. Many people rely on the availability of these locations to learn something new. And where the books don’t go, most all of these venues provide Wi-Fi in addition to their printed literature.
Not everyone has the luxury of a public library. And even if they do, the public library can’t provide access to kind of volume of literature you could find at a big box store. And when you want to go deeper, the big box store can’t hold a candle to the specialty store.
With the loss of Lambda Rising in Washington the LGBT community lost a huge wealth of information resources that was irreplaceable. Even buying gay books through Amazon can’t compare to the experience of browsing shelves filled with queer theory, lesbian erotica, cultural studies and just plain old gay literature. It was astounding. Nothing like it exists outside of a university or perhaps an LGBT institute or non-profit organization. Around the time of the store closing, the owner offhandedly commented that people could find these kinds of works at the big box stores, or on the internet. Sadly, that was just not the case. The average Barnes and Noble will have probably one single book case (6 shelves) dedicated to gay and lesbian books. About half of those are erotica. When Lambda Rising was open, there were three different stores, and the flagship store in Dupont Circle had about 70 bookcases, a video wall, a magazine section, and not to mention the other rainbow patterned accoutrements of the scene. There is no comparison. Similarly the public library has a paucity of gay and lesbian literature. Though it is all integrated into an organizational system that obscures the focus so as not to appear biased toward any particular topic or viewpoint. In my own library I would say that we have a similar amount of LGBT literature, but it’s not as readily identifiable as it is in the big box store.
With Borders going under we find ourselves starting to go adrift. If the big box store was supposed to be our solution to finding those niche items we wanted to find, or wanted to discover in the browsing behavior we’ve adopted, what do we do when the big box store is no more? The problem with Borders failing, is that, for some, Borders may have been the only resource they had left. Having grown up in a rural community, the public library was a lifeline to learning about things I would have never learned in school. Similarly, bookstores at the mall were the nearest thing I had to go beyond what the library was able to provide. Suburban malls were the gateway for rural kids like me to expand my world. My parents never wanted to take me into the city, because they feared for their lives. I laugh at it now, but it was truly the case. Under no circumstances would my parents take me to the city. The furthest afield we adventured was the Eastgate Mall. And I was a bookstore fiend. I would spend hours upon hours browsing the shelves and soaking it in. It’s a practice I still have. But what happens to those kids now who no longer have access to the big box store? The culture of mall shopping, and of suburbia really, has been dying a slow langurous death for decades now. Where will they be able to reach out to stumble across that book that speaks to that secret place in their soul? The library is about all that’s left there.
For the last four years or so, library funding has been going downhill. As goes the economy, so go we. Libraries have had to do a whole host of things to try and weather the economic downturn, as I mentioned above. So measures are taken. Collections budgets grow tighter, staffing slims down to emaciated levels, hours are reduced, and sometimes, sadly, branches are closed. Then children grow up in an information vacuum.
When we close these physical places, we begin setting physical impediments to information. If a child grows up without a public library or without a mall bookstore, chances are they won’t even have internet access except maybe at school. And schools are notorious internet filtering bastards. That child is going to grow up being fed only what his family, the television and the school allows him. What kind of mind does that produce? Will that child be ready to go to college? Or will he be complacent, want to stay where he is, and not care to strive to do anything more?
This concerns me.
Maybe I shouldn’t be worried. Maybe the internet will wind up saving us all. Maybe the economy will turn around and mid-size bookstores will open, the specialty shop will flourish and all shall be well. Maybe other bookstores will be deemed “too big to fail” and there will be government bailouts to help save the minds of generations to come. Or maybe not.