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.”
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.