Yesterday, the Columbus Circle Borders hosted its last event: a well-attended reading from Hair: The Story of the Show that Defined a Generation, followed by cast performances. A young boy sitting toward the back had his nose stuck in a graphic novel (paper, not digital) through almost the whole thing. Afterward, staff members couldn’t answer the question of when exactly the store would fully close: “Sometime before September,” they said.
You’ve heard and read many reasons to be sad about the closing of America’s second largest bookstore chain, as well as explanations for why it failed. But there’s a hint of schadenfreude floating about too. Remember the ’90s, when big chain bookstores killed the independent shop? Remember when Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan made a reunion rom-com about it, set in the Upper West Side? (Yes, back in the day when the Internet was a surprisingly useful tool for romantic trysts instead of an evil slayer of books.)
So what does this all mean for New York’s independent booksellers — Vindication? More customers? Another death knell for books? We visited our neighbors at St Mark’s Bookshop and Shakespeare & Co. Here are some of their thoughts on Borders, books, and New Yorkers:
Our provincial New York ways — you could even call it laziness — has served St Mark’s Bookshop well during most of the store’s 34-year history. Owner Bob Contant said that Borders’ liquidation “makes no difference to us — it’s a different world.” New Yorkers, he notes, can’t be bothered to leave their neighborhoods. Another quirk of city living: Even Amazon wasn’t really a factor in its early snail-mail stages. People who didn’t live in doormen buildings didn’t want to deal with the logistics of receiving a package.
But for the industry, especially writers and publishers, he calls the Borders closing “devastating.” St Mark’s Bookshop is going through hard times of its own, in the age of those pesky bar-code scanning apps, e-readers, and tablets. They’ve had to slash staff. They’re trying to renegotiate lease conditions with their landlord, Cooper Union. But St. Mark’s has no plans to close. “Summer’s always slow, but we’d like to be optimistic about our future,” says Contant.
At Shakespeare & Co., operations manager David Moran speculated that other independent sellers around town might be rejoicing at the demise of a big box retailer. “Fifteen years ago, I might have been angry about the big bookstores. But now, the Goliath is Amazon,” he said. David doesn’t think Borders will really affect local readers, or his store’s sales. “New York’s so well served with bookstores — there’s a graver effect in places where customers don’t have alternatives.”
Katrina Malark, now on staff at Shakespeare & Co, worked at the Kips Bay Borders from August 2010 through its liquidation in May this year. It wasn’t a bad place to be, but she prefers her current workplace. At Borders, there were a lot of all-day loungers who weren’t really interested in shopping for books. At Shakespeare & Co., she explains, “People here like books. And they like people!”
It seems the joy of browsing and holding a paper book will live on in the city, at least for the time being: a study this year shows that New York has the 12th-best market for independent book sellers in the country.