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Archive for the ‘Lifestyle’ Category

It’s no surprise, really, that the struggling Borders bookseller chain is filing for bankruptcy—and thousands of employees will soon file for unemployment, as the company closes more than 200 stores across the nation. According to the Wall Street Journal:

“The bookseller suffered a series of management gaffes, piled up unsustainable debts and failed to cultivate a meaningful presence on the Internet or in increasingly popular digital e-readers.”

That is, Borders just couldn’t keep pace with Amazon.com and its eBooks lagged far behind Amazon’s Kindle, Apple’s iPad and B&N’s Nook.

Here in Manhattan, three Borders will shut their doors—the massive store—with a great view from the cafe—at 57th and Park, on 2nd Avenue in the Kipps Bay neighborhood and downtown, on lower Broadway.

For those of us who love to be in the presence of vast numbers of books—real ones—it’s a depressing trend. And one reminiscent of the way MP3 technology shuttered music stores like Tower Records. Not long ago I wrote in this space mourning the loss of the Barnes & Noble-Lincoln Center at 66th and Broadway, just across the street from Tower’s old digs (now a Raymour & Flanagan furniture store).  B&N was a kind of unofficial cultural center—it was “our place,” a “Cheers” for nondrinkers, a haven offering coffee, scones, community—and of course books, to browse (yes, many used the place as a library, which was part of the problem) and to buy.

Above all, 200 employees worked there, and while a few were placed in other B&Ns downtown and on the Upper East and West sides, many are still grappling with joblessness—and doubtless with horror tales of “99ers.”

The advent of e-readers may, in fact, promote literacy, allowing owners to carry whole libraries in their pockets. But as with so much of technology, it also taketh away. In this case, the sensual experience of holding, thumbing through, smelling a book. Or losing oneself in the stacks. Call me a Luddite, but those e-thingies just don’t exude the same appeal.

Beyond aesthetics, the demise of record stores and booksellers exacts a human toll. In his book Aftershock, former Clinton Labor Secretary points out that for all our justifiable anti-outsourcing fury, automation has also cost many millions of jobs. The bank teller. The telephone operator—and the guys who made phone booths.  The gas station attendant who cleaned your windshield. The folks at my supermarket and CVS who’ve been replaced with self-service checkouts. And soon, many thousands of employees of the US Postal Service (I’ll skip a “going postal” joke here).

Those jobs are never coming back.

The Internet is a marvel, linking nations, abetting democratic revolutions, disseminating vital scientific and medical information and promoting the exchange of ideas (and allowing crackpots like me to vent and pontificate); it also provides a platform for terrorists and sexual predators, demagogues and propagandists. On balance, it improves and streamlines our lives. But at a cost.

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I suppose most people don’t get sentimental about Barnes & Noble. In New York City back in the ‘90s, the superstores were denounced, decried and in some cases picketed for putting small, quaint local booksellers out of business.

But in the decade I’ve lived in NYC, the vast Barnes & Noble near Lincoln Center, commanding the corner of Broadway and 66th Street, has been  an integral part of the Upper West Side. It also provided 200 jobs.

That is, until yesterday at 8 p.m., when the store closed its doors for good, leaving a huge void at Lincoln Triangle.

Physically, the massive store had unexpected charms—little corners and crannies where patrons browsed and in some cases sprawled out—including a colorful cast of regulars, like the burly, bearded fellow who camped out on the third floor—near the sports section but usually reading physics or math books. Or the smiling Latino in flip-flops posted on the invisible border between biography and self-help.

For anyone who loves books, the seemingly endless stacks enveloped you in a warm embrace. But this B&N was far more than a bookstore—due in large part to its proximity to Lincoln Center, it was a cultural mecca, with a third-floor event space where Broadway and cabaret singers and jazz musicians performed on Wednesdays, and on any given night an author might appear, be it a Joyce Carol Oates, or a Hollywood celebrity—Ernest Borgnine was particular delight—or the latest pop-shrink, holistic doc, or chick-lit sensation.

But for me and my wife Susan, the great personal loss will be the huge, airy fourth-floor cafe  adjoining the magazine racks—light streaming through its ceiling high windows, trademark authors mural gazing down as we noshed our scones and drank our coffees, teas and lattes. We met there after work and often went there together on weekends. On election night 2008, when I was too nervous to watch the returns—polls, schmolls, I just couldn’t believe this country could elect an African-American president—we sat there until Ron, the manager, called out to us, “Obama won Ohio.” Then we knew it was safe to go home, turn on MSNBC, and enjoy several of the happiest hours of our lives.

To us regulars the cafe was a kind of Cheers for nondrinkers. We bonded with the young staff, many of whom memorized our phone number (inserted in lieu of our member card)—Ron and Marvin and Greg and Alex and T’Keyah and Sasha and Laura and Andrew and Evan and Jennea and Cindy—and Christina, who met and fell in love with fellow barista Sean—who is also a specialist in the Army Reserve. Now they’re engaged. Christina is expecting their baby in April. And next fall, Sean deploys to Afghanistan.

The cafe—until recently open till midnight every day—was a free wi-fi paradise for laptop and netbook users. And it was a haven for single people, divorced, widowed or simply unattached, many of them middle aged and older, who came there just because they didn’t want to stay home and stare at the four walls.

There was 79-year-old Monroe, in his omnipresent fishing vest (dotted with lefty political buttons), a retired graphic artist and local radio legend—for the past half-century he has been the most prolific caller-in to WBAI. There was Alan, the painter and Judith, the white-haired, angelic former actress,  and Tom Signorelli, a character actor of stage and film who sadly passed away last summer in his 70s—just before the store’s closing was first announced. And an eccentric old guy with Einstein hair and a thick, unidentifiable accent, who resembled a Vaudeville clown—often garbed in a jacket, tie, vest and loud red pants

Then there’s the bearded little man my wife and I dubbed The Water Thief—so named because we’ve seen him steal bottled water at B&Ns and Starbucks all over town. His M.O. is to come in, actually buy a coffee, sit and read the New York Times, then, when it’s time to leave, scurry up to the fridge section, stuff a small Fiji or Poland Spring into his apparently bottomless pocket, and scurry out. TWT picks his spots perfectly—he never gets caught.

‘Where you gonna go—82nd?’ we regulars ask each other.

That would be the store that occupies the former Schrafft’s, on Broadway between 82nd and 83rd. It’s smaller, though, and darker, and the cafe is about 1/3 the size of the 66th street store. There’s an impressive new B&N at 86th and Columbus. But it’s in a windowless basement. And we West Siders can’t get quite comfortable there.

At bottom, “our” B&N offered a sense of community, a place to connect, both with literature and fellow New Yorkers. I know that’s part of the problem: They were there to sell books, and between the recession and the decline of print, the store was losing money. We dropped a lot of $$$ there—aside from all the coffee, scones, muffins and bagels we actually did purchase quite a few books. But many folks did just hang out, and use the place as a library. I get that.

But it was our place. Now it’s going to be a Century 21.

F—ing landlords.

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When it comes to children, this otherwise progressive writer is probably a centrist, somewhere to the right of Angelina Jolie and to the left of W.C. Fields. That ambivalence (shared by my spouse) explains why I’m not a parent—it’s the most important job in the world, a lifelong commitment, and one shouldn’t be on the fence about it.  Also, I’m really, really selfish.

So I’m not the first person who should be dispensing parenting advice; on the other hand, sometimes it’s useful to get an outside perspective.

The social psychologist Diana Baumrind has identified three major parenting styles:

1) Authoritarian  (excessively strict and at worst, abusive);

2) Authoritative (firm, but fair—Ward and June Cleaver—the ideal);

3) Permissive (they cave, like France, or moderate Democrats)

As a resident of New York City’s Upper West Side, where the sidewalks are paved with strollers and illegal nannies, I’ve had ample exposure to #3 and guys, I have a message for you: Your kids may be (and should be) the center of your universe. But not ours.  You live in a mommyanddaddy bubble, and you think the world’s your family room. It’s not. So please, wake up, remember there are other people on this earth and:

1) Don’t teach your toddler to walk on the subway stairs—at rush hour. Yes, there are actually people who do this—young, healthy people who could easily carry their kids. While you’re cooing, “Yay, Emma” you could cause a commuter catastrophe—a pileup of bodies with a crushed little Emma underneath. Also, you’re making me late.

2) Don’t let your kid ride his bike or scooter, or roller skate or skateboard on a crowded sidewalk. I don’t care if little Max is wearing  a helmet—we’re not, and while you’re lingering behind, chatting about white wine, he could send someone—say, an elderly person with a walker—flying.

3) Don’t let your little ones run around loose in restaurants—did you ever see a waiter or waitress try to dodge a small child while carrying four hot bowls of soup?

4) Don’t let your kid press the elevator button. Because he or she will press at least three or four. It’s not cute. And it will make me late.

People will hate me for this one:

5) Breastfeed all you want—but not next to my table at Starbucks. Or if you must, please wear a blanket. I know the research—mommy breast milk beats the crap out of Elsie the Cow’s. But as a new mom pal of mine attests, some women are breastfeed in a way to be SEEN breastfeeding. In a way that cries out “Yes, yes, I am a caring nurturer!” Then they hand the kid off to the nanny. And I feel like asking, “Got two percent?”

Oh, while you’re at it, get off my lawn.

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