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Third Places: Why I’ll Miss Borders

July 26, 2011

No post last week, as I was visiting the lovely if altogether too humid land of New England.  But I’m back, and this week’s post combines three of my favorite things: bookstores, coffee, and Robert Putnam.  (Those of you who didn’t study any political science in college, bear with me.  Imagine this next line in your best gypsy fortune-teller voice: alllll will be explained…)

I came across this blog post from the Economist a couple of weeks ago.  It’s one of many voices raised recently in a lament about the death of the brick-and-mortar bookstore, given the result of Borders’ liquidation proceedings.  While I myself have been guilty of ordering books on ye olde Amazon instead of schlepping over to the bookstore and buying them–and while some sense of holier-than-thou book-hipsteriness (or a love of creaky wooden floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, perhaps) has driven me to buy books in person at independent, local stores rather than national chains like Borders or Barnes & Noble–I’m sad about Borders’ swan song.

For one thing, it takes away the two most conveniently located bookstores in my habitual errand-running and shopping haunts.  Since I don’t live in a rural-flavored town in middle America, unlike some of the unfortunately located bibliophiles the Economist’s blogger points out, this isn’t actually much of a problem so much as an outlet for the human aversion to change to rear its head.  In fact, with several very large and nicely appointed libraries in easy driving distance, a couple of two-story Barnes & Noble locations still around, and the lovely Bookman just ’round the corner from my current air-conditioned abode, I’m not in bad shape as far as brick-and-mortar browsing goes.  Not to mention the fact that I’ll probably just order my next shiny piece of booky goodness from Amazon… Guilty as charged, indeed.

But the Economist’s Prospero pokes at the edges of a more serious problem with Borders’ inability to stay afloat.  The blog post characterizes Borders stores and their like, particularly when they’re the only location of their kind in a smaller middle-American town, as “a rare, atmospheric and pressure-free space for bibliophiles” to congregate and to browse.  Which brings me to the idea of the bookstore as a third place, a term coined in the late 80s by sociologist Ray Oldenburg to describe a public space that’s not home and not work, but something in between.

I first came across the term in the aspirational corporate parlance of Starbucks, where I’ve worked between school semesters and internships (and currently, while I’m on the full-time job hunt) for going on four years.  Starbucks, with its cushy chairs, free wi-fi, and 50-cent refills on plain coffee and tea drinks, does a relatively good job among big chain commercial establishments of being a “third place.”  At least, given that I’m sitting at one now, sipping an iced latte and watching a pair of college students studying together, I think it’s doing all right.  The “third place” is meant to be one that encourages the building of community and social capital–informal social ties outside of family and workplace (and here’s the Robert Putnam, for the uninitiated) that have suffered in recent decades dominated by television and, lately, the Internet.

Bookstores like Borders do this in a way different from Starbucks, or even the cozier local café alternative.  Oftentimes the people I see at Starbucks have nothing in common beyond a taste for caffeine or a hankering for free wi-fi service–and sometimes, not even that.  But the choice to go hang out and browse at a bookstore is one that automatically self-selects for a certain disposition, although I’ll be the first person to tell you that there are billions of different kinds of people under the heading of “lover of books.”  If you’re at a brick-and-mortar bookstore these days, chances are you aren’t making a beeline for a specific title.  Chances are you don’t know exactly what you want, which is why you didn’t just order the thing on Amazon.  The last time I was at a Borders, actually, it was to browse the cookbook section–with very little idea of what I actually wanted, which is why I didn’t order it on Amazon.  I was counting on the random felicity of browsing to deliver something interesting–which it did.

The same goes for random conversations with fellow browsers, which are something of a specialty of the third place.  I’ve had rather excellent book recommendations served to me by fellow readers, for example, and at least one sympathetic conversation with a fellow bibliophile who saw me roll my eyes at a Twilight display.  This is not the kind of thing that’s going to happen on Amazon.  Granted, I can seek out recommendations from the aggregate online community of readers in the form of Amazon reviews or communities on sites like Goodreads–but the thing is, I have to go looking for those.  There’s nothing serendipitous about them, unless I happen to be using an application like StumbleUpon.

And so, without quite reaching the seriousness of Putnam’s concern for the fall of social capital, what I’ll miss about Borders–and, if its fellows follow it down the path of no return, other physical bookstore establishments–is that sense of fortunate discovery.  Whether directed by other customers or not, browsing a physical bookstore is already directed by myriad factors that make bookstores a bad choice for hunting down a specific obscure title, but an excellent choice for someone who has an open mind about what they want to find: your selection is more limited, you may have to pass over several titles that don’t interest you, and the bookstore staff may have chosen to emphasize certain titles you wouldn’t give a second glance if you saw them online.

In my experience, online retailers haven’t found a way to replicate this browsing experience.  Amazon will tell you what’s hot this week, sure; it’ll even offer you customer-created lists of recommendations or themed lists of books based on the title you’re currently examining.  But Amazon (and even sites like Google, as increasingly scary articles and monographs have pointed out over the past year or two) is all too eager to customize your experience according to what it thinks you want to see.  Italics entirely necessary: this is why Amazon doesn’t, for some reason, know to send me emails when Neil Gaiman releases a new book, but does think I care every time it restocks various academic editions of the works of Sigmund FreudThat’s sweet, Amazon, but when I want to order a textbook, I’ll let you know.

When I walk into a Borders, on the other hand–something I’ll make a point to do for the last time in the next few days, if only to take advantage of going-out-of-business sales–the staff have absolutely no idea what I want.  So while I occasionally have to suffer through storefront Twilight displays, I also have the pleasure of discovering something completely new.

The day Amazon and Google figure out how to copy this is probably the day they’ll take over the world.  But at least they’ll stop trying to get me to read more Freud.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. September 15, 2012 11:58 AM

    Hi Steph

    Just read this posting today and it’s as relevant in September 2012 as it was in July 2011. Here in Australia, Borders Group Inc. operated its stores from 1998 to 2008; it then sold all of its Australian, New Zealand and Singaporean retail outlets to a private equity finance-backed consortium, REDGroup Retail. Suffice it to say, REDGroup Retail also collapsed in 2011, taking with it not only Borders Asia Pacific (encompassing Borders Australia, Borders New Zealand and Borders Singapore), but also Borders Australia’s biggest rival, Australia’s oldest book sellers, Angus & Robertson/Bookworld. (To say there was no love lost between Borders Australia and A & R/BW would be an understatement).

    Like you, many of my friends and I miss visiting Borders stores; when they were still part of the American parent company, there was a palpable, almost contagious enthusiasm shared by both staff and customers. In many ways, it reminded me of university and that collegial atmosphere. This evaporated after the 2008 sale and REDGroup began implementing boneheaded decision after boneheaded decision (e.g. they began trying to sell portable camping stoves in Borders Australia stores in 2010). After the collapse, the stores underwent fire sales in much the same way I have read occurred in the U.S. The stores have gradually found new tenants and the Borders Australia website was taken over by Pearsons, the publishers of The Economist and The Financial Times (it has since been renamed Bookworld.). I understand that there may still be five Borders Bookstores operating in New Zealand, although I have heard that they may be rebranded very soon.

    I still see former Borders staff members, every now and again; more often than not, they look wistfully and shake their heads sadly. Earlier this year, I saw a former assistant store manager being berated, by her new boss, in her new role as a sales assistant at a cramped, discount book store.

    Nothing really remains the same.

    • September 17, 2012 9:49 AM

      Thanks for sharing, Al. I’m sorry to hear Australia lost both Borders and its major competitor in one go–I consider myself fortunate to live in a place with not only a surfeit of amazing indie bookstores, but also a healthy number of Barnes & Noble locations (which is now the US’s largest book chain).

      The Borders liquidation sales here were really sort of heartbreaking all on their own. I couldn’t help wondering, where were all these bargain-hunters back when they could have kept Borders afloat? But then I think we know the answer to that–they were online.

      I made a New Year’s Resolution back in January to buy print books only from brick-and-mortar stores, and it’s been illuminating. I’ve discovered a few great reads through booksellers’ handselling efforts. It’s really impressive how quick, and how accurate, they are at picking out comp titles if you give them a sense of what you’re in the mood for. So it’s awful to hear people say that since their Borders closed, there are *no* bookstores in their area.

      • September 17, 2012 12:39 PM

        Hi Steph

        Thank you for responding to my comment re: Borders Australia and its demise. There are are other booksellers around Australia, but none of them has Borders’ relaxed, unhurried atmosphere or ambience (perhaps why their customers flocked to Borders when it opened in Melbourne back in 1998). Let’s put it this way – you can’t sit and browse magazines and books at any of these retailers and, even if the sales staff permitted you to, the shops are so cramped and tiny you wouldn’t be motivated to do so anyway.

        BTW: I found out that there are still Borders Bookstores flourishing in other parts of the world. The Al Maya Group, based in the United Arab Emirates, and the Berjaya Group, in Malaysia, have both been operating franchised Borders Bookstores in their respective parts of the world. (On the Al Maya Group website, there is even a 3 photo gallery of one of their Borders’ stores; very much like to those we had here in Australia, down to the carpets.)

        Al Maya Group has the master franchise for Borders in the Persian Gulf states whilst the latter in Malaysia (obviously); none of these were ever Borders Group Inc. stores – they have been franchised from the very start. (Maybe franchising was something Borders Group Inc. ought to have looked into earlier on, back in ’06.)

        Cheers

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