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Obituary for the Bookstore

This month, Borders and Waldenbooks close their doors forever.

When I was in college, my dream job was to open my own bookstore. Decades later, that dream is not only unrealized, but unobtainable. 

The bookstore as retailer is fading, and with it, a whole chapter of my life is being extinguished.

I've always been an avid reader. In high school, I developed the typical nerdy kid's affinity for science fiction and fantasy. I read all the classic authors of the time, including Isaac Asimov, Piers Anthony, and Douglas Adams. 

As a natural outgrowth, I started watching British television import Doctor Who, crossing over to the fanatical side quickly and acquiring every single novelization of the show as it made its way into print. When I was old enough to start working part-time, I quickly signed on for nights and weekends at the Waldenbooks in Northbrook Court. Only a subsequent discovery of computers and information technology kept me from what would have been a somewhat naive pursuit of retail fame and fortune.

The publishing industry is, understandably, steeped in tradition. Not many high school kids were interested in reading Publishers Weekly back then, but for me it was better than any bestseller. Learning about imprints, advances, author tours, reissues, paperbacks, sequels, remainders, returns and stripping was endlessly fascinating. (No -- not that kind of stripping! "Stripping" in the book industry refers to a somewhat-abhorrent practice of claiming credit for unsold paperback books. Instead of actually returning the unsold books to the publisher, or discounting them for clearance, booksellers strip off the front cover to return for credit.)

Just when I was getting ready to enter the real world, retail book-selling collided with the big box store era. Barnes and Noble, until then mainly a college campus bookseller; and Borders, a division of KMart that was just going national, were facing off in a storefront battle of Burger King vs. McDonald's proportion. On Lake-Cook Road in Deerfield, these two behemoths set up shop right across the street, with Borders creating a full experience through the addition of music, video and a coffee shop. It was like a reader's wonderland, with so many incredible titles right there on the shelves. 

Adding to the clash of the titans was discounter Crown Books, located on the third corner of the intersection. Quickly, the market for books at retail was redefined, and my little Waldenbooks (also owned by KMart) retreated from Northbrook Court.

In the last decade, the book industry was redefined twice over. First, Amazon replaced the bookstore. Online, you could preview a book in your pajamas, find out what other readers really thought, and use computer analytics to discover other authors that might interest you. Who needed to go shop in an actual physical building for a commodity purchase? Then, the ebook was born. I could buy that book anytime, anywhere, with instant access and a built-in bookmark. Suddenly, that lifestyle experience at the bookstore wasn't all that interesting anymore.

This month, Borders and Waldenbooks are closing their doors forever. Their stores in Highland Park, Deerfield, and Northbrook Court are all shuttered. Barnes and Noble is hanging on for now, as are a few independent shops such as Winnetka's Book Stall at Chestnut Court. As they say, though, the handwriting is on the wall. While purists sniff that it is easier to read the printed word, or that they enjoy the touch and feel of the book or dogearing a page, the era of moveable type is rapidly drawing to a close.

Sheila Goldberg August 17, 2011 at 11:18 AM
Great article, but The Book Stall is in Winnetka, not Wilmette.
Ed Brill August 17, 2011 at 11:23 AM
Shoot. Lived here most of my life and still get the Ws backwards. I'll get it fixed.
David Zacher August 17, 2011 at 02:46 PM
I too am an avid reader. My Mom put To Kill a Mockingbird in my hand and turned me on to Agatha Christie early on. I miss the independent bookstores and maybe with the demise of Borders the vacuum will be filled with an independent store in Highland Park. I hate the ebooks. People say books take up to much room in their suitcases when traveling. Well take a sweater out and put a book in. In maybe a thousand years our civilzation will not have books or letters for people to reflect what they said to each other. Just a tweet and an email. I recently heard if insects perished from the earth humans would die out in 50 years . Yet if humans perished all other life would flourish. Interesting ....
Bob Levi August 18, 2011 at 12:38 PM
Does anyone read any more, Ed, besides those of us who are "of a certain age"? I opened a used book store in 1995 and closed it after three years.. Did all of my market research and developed a business plan. The one thing I didn't anticipate was the popularity of the Internet, which started flourishing just about then. I recall reading an article where a survey was done asking people what they had given up with the advent of the Internet. Number one was TV and number two was reading. My guess that TV has rebounded with the advent of on-demand movies and plans with hundreds of channels, but I bet reading hasn't come back.
laurie weil August 18, 2011 at 05:16 PM
I read. I remember traveling downtown after birthdays and holidays to spend my K&B gift certificates. I still have those books. I can't stand e-books.

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