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I am always skeptical of someone who says that their favorite… whatever is some kind of large corporate chain. You’ve probably heard things like this before, “Applebee’s mozzarella sticks are my favorite.” Some times you’ll hear it about an entire restaurant like “Outback steakhouse is my favorite steakhouse.” Today I heard many “Borders was my favorite bookstore.” Though these statements may be made with genuine sincerity, I just don’t see how something so readily available to almost anyone in the country could fill such a special place in your heart as to be called your “favorite.”
Yesterday we got news that Borders, my former employer filed for chapter 11 bankruptcy, a move that I had been expecting for over a year. They also announced the closure of 200 of its stores including the store I worked for in Century City, Los Angeles. I saw immediate public outcry from people lamenting the their soon to be closed local Borders bookstore.
For those who live in locations where the nearest bookstore to them is Borders I do feel sorry as I believe that any bookstore is better than none at all. Though I love Amazon.com, their infinite selection and great prices cannot make up for the experience of browsing the bookshelves in a physical store. Those who will lose that opportunity are the people that will really feel the loss if their store closes, I noticed that most of this outcry was not from them. It was coming from people who lived in a metropolis with a Barns and Noble or even better an independent neighborhood bookstore. LA is blessed to have a few pretty good ones like Book soup in West Hollywood or Skylight books in Los Feliz. Similarly in most cities you can find bookstores like this, they may not be as easy to find as Borders but they are far more of an enjoyable experience to visit.
These independent bookstores have the advantage that they really are a part of your community from the customers up to the owner. Any of these national companies claiming to be your neighborhood anything are kidding themselves. How could a large chain possibly understand what it means to be the provider of a community? Everything from the products they carry to the store layout and furniture down to the rehearsed lines that you are greeted with by the employees are dictated by a corporate office hundreds or thousands of miles away. That they have any understanding of your neighborhood is absurd.
Though they will not carry as many titles, the independent bookstore will cater more to your neighborhoods taste. It may also carry some harder to find titles in more customized categories. For example one of my favorite “independents” Skylight books, while not a big store with a vast selection they understood their neighborhood. They carried most of the popular books, the best sellers but they also carried some less know books by smaller publishers and lesser known authors, they also had a book lovers wet dream. A well thought out wall dedicated to McSweeny’s publishing. This included all in print versions of McSweeny’s, the Believer, and any of their other published books. The staff was much more knowledgable about the books in the store and could make thoughtful recommendations carrying on unrehearsed conversations about literature.
You can’t blame the employees of the big chains for not living up to the expectations of those working at smaller independents. They don’t have any investment in the company or how it performs nor does the company place any substantial investment in the employees. There was a time when you applied for jobs based on your interests, if you love books you applied to bookstores, if you love electronics you applied to electronics stores, if you loved arts and crafts you applies to art stores. When was the last time you went into a Michaels craft store asked for something and found that the employee was knowledgable and could lead you right to what you were looking for? That’s never happened for me, they always look at me glassy eyed like I’d asked them where they keep the holy grail, we wonder down aisles of the store until we arrive at items completely different from those I was looking for. If you go to a Blockbusters and expect them to have a vast working knowledge of films then you are expecting far too much from them.
These employees didn’t take those jobs because they were genuinely interested in the products being sold they took them because the needed a job. I worked for a Borders and I loved books, I worked with others who also had a love for books, but in today’s economy that is the exception. These chain stores pretend that they are just a bigger version of your local independent they even train their employees to act like they work for one, but by their very nature they just don’t have the ability to be so.
This is not to say that I don’t shop at these Corporate Machines, because I do. I buy most of my books either used or through Amazon. These items however are less special, not different but the experience of buying them was different. I could probably go through my bookshelf and point out all the books I bought from independent booksellers tell you which specific store and what it was like to make that purchase. These books are special to me because the entire experience of finding them on the shelves and buying them was much more personal. I’ve never had a meal at chain restaurant that beat out a meal from a non-chain. I love going to a local True Value hardware over a Home Depot, not only because the employees at Home Depot are just as bad as those at Michael’s but also because I get the sense that the employees really use the tools being sold and have real opinions about what does the best work for the job. If you’ve ever been to an independent bookstore over a PetCo or Petsmart you understand how much more enjoyable buying dog food can be.
I understand if you like to stop by a Borders to kill time or occasionally buy a book on sale, if you enjoy Applebees mozzarella sticks, or go to Petco for kitty litter because its close by. To go so far as to say that any of these are your favorite means that either you’ve never experience the pleasures of an independent store or you’ve just been brainwashed by the corporate juggernaut. Now that many will be losing their local Borders, this will hopefully give neighborhood bookstores a chance to thrive and show people how truly special it can be to shop at a store like that.