"I cannot live without books." — Thomas Jefferson
My name is John Grooms, and I'm a book addict. There, I've said it. Like our nation's third president, I can't live without books; if it's 50 or more pages between two pieces of cardboard, I'm interested. When I travel to a new city, one of my first thoughts is about finding its best independent bookstore. That's why I had to blink and look again when I saw the headline, hoping I had read it wrong. But there it was: "Borders at Morrocroft and Joseph-Beth are closing." My heart sank.
The closings are part of a trend roaring through the publishing and bookselling industries, as economic woes continue and competition from online retailers and electronic books intensifies. Knowing that it's a nationwide trend, however, doesn't make it any easier to see more bookstores closing.
Some lovers of small, independent bookstores may react to the news by snickering. "Hmph. Serves 'em right, putting indies out of business the way they do." There's some truth in that reaction, but it's also a fact that Charlotte will soon be poorer by losing two good bookstores. The whole argument over "Big Chain Stores vs. Small Independents" has raged ever since the first mom-and-pop went under as a result of a Barnes & Noble moving in next door. The argument got louder in Charlotte when local stalwarts like Brandywine Books and Horizon Books went under, soon after a big chain store opened near them. The way I see it, indies and big chain stores both have their own strengths and weaknesses.
Independent bookstores often have a more personal, intimate feel that invites you to stay awhile, browse, sit and read. Sometimes the feeling of intimacy is due to the smaller size of the building; or maybe it's the old wobbly floors; or narrower aisles; or simply knowing that indies will generally special order whatever you want quicker than the big guys — and they'll call you personally to tell you when your book comes in.
Real bookhounds know, too, that each independent is different, with its own distinct atmosphere, from almost-stuffy to downright homey. They tend to have their own specialties and quirks, too. Do you want to read local authors? Park Road and Paper Skyscraper will likely have what you want. Books on architecture? Paper Sky. Books by and about African-Americans? Head to RealEyes in NoDa. Books for and about kids? Park Road. Alternative culture and lefty politics? Try Malaprop's in Asheville the next time you're there. Or, if you're a serious bookhound, drive to Asheville just to hit the bookstore. If you're not an addict, you may laugh at that last suggestion, but hey, I've done it, and I know plenty of others who have, too.
As much as we may love indie bookstores, though, there's one thing we won't find there: deep inventory and back stock. And that's where the Borders and Barnes & Nobles of the world come in. It's also why most indie bookstore fans in Charlotte didn't exactly start crying when they heard that B&N and Borders were coming to town in the early '90s.
Let's say you've just finished the Booker Prize-winning novel The Little Stranger by Brit author Sarah Waters, and now you want to read her earlier stuff. It would be nice to be able to look at all her previous books before deciding which one to jump into next. Independents simply cannot afford to carry tons of back stock for most authors, so you'd be better off, in this instance, to head for the big stores. You'll also find more specialized non-fiction at the biggies, from the varying theories of how to keep bees to books about a specific Revolutionary War battle or works about the varieties of rock music in the 1980s. The biggies simply have way more titles, which is a joy in itself for us book junkies. Being able to simply walk the aisles and browse forever, now and then picking up an interesting-looking book on a subject you'd never have thought of otherwise, making discoveries. At times like that, nothing can match the appeal of the biggies.
It's a new age, and lots of people don't mind reading books on a gizmo and ordering online. The bookstore experience, the holding-feeling-even-smelling-the-book experience doesn't matter to them. Which, well, to each his own, I guess. For many of us, though, books and bookstores, and the experiences they offer, are important parts of our lives, and we hate to see any of them close.