Tuesday, September 20, 2011

When a town's bookstore closes

Wilson's Books-A-Million, the only bookstore in a town of nearly 50,000, is closing, the victim of a lingering economic downturn and a changed business environment for booksellers. First, it was the big-box bookstores that ran the little independents out of business. Now, it's the online retailers (Amazon, etc.) and the switch to e-readers (e.g., Kindle) that is forcing the big-box bookstores out of business.

Economic changes aside, can a small city claim any intellectual ranking without a bookstore? A bookstore is not just a place to buy books; it's a place to discover books, to talk to fellow readers and to luxuriate in the aroma and feel of freshly printed books. Bookstores are places where I can spend hours without realizing any time has elapsed.

When we moved to Wilson 31 years ago, a B. Dalton bookstore lured us out of Parkwood Mall's wide corridor into its cramped aisles. Now the store (part of a chain but with some helpful local clerks) is gone, and the mall is pretty much kaput, too. We mourned the demise of B. Dalton but were encouraged by BAM's opening. We could, at last, shop through thousands of books along wide aisles and refresh ourselves at the coffee bar without leaving town. Every Christmas season, we would hunt through the selections for books for young nieces and nephews because we knew there's no better gift than a good book, and we wanted to have a role in sparking these children's love of reading. Other gift-giving occasions for older relatives or friends also would bring us to the bookstore. On other occasions, we would simply drop by the bookstore to spend a half hour or so just looking to see what's new and to treat ourselves to a cup of coffee.

Now, we won't be able to do any of those things without going out of town. We can order books online, but it's not the same, especially when it comes to children's books. Without a bookstore, Wilson will be a lesser place.

BAM's closing will be an opportunity for an enterprising bibliophile to open an independent bookstore, perhaps combining used books with a few new printings. The business plan will depend on one's ability to get a business loan in this economic climate — and on local shoppers' willingness to support that increasingly rarity, an independent bookstore.

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