Editorial: Bookstores a vanishing institution

Odd, isn’t it? When Borders opened in San Luis Obispo in 2003, there was a fear — as there had been with the opening of Barnes & Noble — that it would drive independent booksellers out of business.

Sadly, one by one, the smaller, independent bookstores in SLO did close their doors. But a variety of factors — not just the rise of big boxes — was to blame.

Now, it’s apparent that big boxes aren’t immune to the growing competition from online retailers, e-readers, discount stores and other shopping alternatives that made it so tough for the independents to survive in the book business.

Borders has announced that it’s shuttering all its stores, and when that happens, that will leave Barnes & Noble as the last bookstore standing in SLO. (To clarify, we’re referring to general-interest bookstores that offer new books on a wide variety of subjects, not to used bookstores, Christian bookstores, college bookstores or other specialty booksellers.)

It may be hard to believe, but we’re fortunate to have even one bookstore; some larger communities have no bookseller at all. For example, Santa Maria, a city of more than 100,000, was left without a traditional bookstore when two chain bookshops in the Santa Maria Town Center Mall shut down.

Granted, the lack of a brick-and-mortar bookstore doesn’t mean that people aren’t reading.

Consumers have a variety of choices today: We can download books to e-readers; listen to them on CDs; order books online; purchase discounted books at a Target or Costco; and of course, borrow books from friends or from the library.

But there’s something about walking in a bookstore that can’t be duplicated — something that we’d miss terribly if bookstores were to disappear.

Shopping at a bookstore isn’t just about buying a product, it’s about connecting. Wander into any well-stocked bookstore, no matter where it is, and there’s an instant sense of belonging to a community of readers.

Certainly, libraries offer that too. But due to their limited hours — which have been scaled back even more on account of budget cuts — they aren’t accessible on, say, a Sunday afternoon or a Monday evening.

Bookstores, on the other hand, offer almost limitless opportunities to browse for hours; to strike up conversations about this or that best seller; to curl up in a corner with your kids and Dr. Seuss; to kill time over a cup of coffee and a magazine; to daydream over lush photographs in travel books.

When big boxes opened, there were predictions that much of that ambience would be lost — they were too large, too impersonal, too corporate.

They did lack the individuality and charm of many of the independent bookstores. But behind that corporate logo, those were real people working the cash registers, making suggestions if we needed a book for a-hard-to-buy-for uncle, helping us figure out what we were looking for when we didn’t have an author’s name quite right.

And yes, those were real people working at Borders this week, where customers continued to meander among the shelves and booksellers continued — for now — to ring up sales.

There’s been speculation that the closure of Borders could lead to a resurgence of small, independent bookstores.

We hope that’s the case. Otherwise, the collapse of Borders could be one of the final chapters for an institution that’s been key to the social and intellectual life of practically every community: the local bookstore.