The Barnes & Noble looked lackluster from outside, like most remaining brick and mortar joints that have bled their last drop of blood for the digital usurpers of the computer age. In fact, from the parking lot, I thought it might be closed. The windows were faded and the glass tint was scuffed and faded, and it wasn’t until I reached the door that I saw there were, in fact, people inside. Whew. I breathed a sigh of relief as this was the only stop left for me to complete my Christmas shopping, and it had to be a bookstore. Barnes & Noble seems to be one of the few chain book outlets anywhere near me, and the gift I had in mind could only be had from a book store. It’s too late in the Season to order online with shipping by Christmas (at a reasonable price, I should add).
As I walked in, it seemed the store had shrunk. Its old vastness I recalled from previous visits was gone. It was as if the walls had been pushed in, and there were empty shelves and the customers seemed listless, bored, sad. Then I spotted the sign.
“This Barnes & Noble store will close for business on December 31.”
Another one bites the dust.
I was a little surprised, because even though every chain bookstore in the world is flailing on its last leg, this one seemed pretty vibrant as long as I could remember (which was at least 2 years ago). Me and my Kindle have no right questioning Barnes & Noble’s moves. I drove them out of business with my infatuation with electronic books and impatient embrace of instant, wireless delivery. I killed Barnes & Noble. This one. I used to visit often in the “old days.” I bought so many books here, so many magazines. Now, I happened to wander in looking for something that couldn’t be hurried along, into this physical store with shelves and the restrained, antiseptic smell of books and paper. I spent about half an hour browsing others items besides the one which I specifically made this trip for, and by the time I was ready to pay, I was holding a stack worth about $78.
My Christmas shopping was officially done! It is the second year in a row I have not waited until the last minute. I hate Christmas, and in the past, I passively countered all holiday obligations by indulging in the worst, most stressful sort of procrastination.
Not this year.
This afternoon, during my last visit to this store, I wandered past empty shelves and clearance areas and looked at all the physical books, lined up on shelves, their spines exposed to those who cared, which apparently, is not enough. Barnes & Noble’s great gimmick back in the day was that it provided a hospitable place for those who wanted to read books not purchased while sitting on the floor or on comfortable chairs, kind of like a library, except Barnes & Noble was not in the business of renting books, only selling them. You were free to lounge and read for free without getting angry glares from employees. It was encouraged! I spent many days during my 20’s in the big chain bookstores of the era: Barnes & Noble, Crown Books, Waldenbooks, Borders, B. Dalton. Bookstores were my refuge from a world that threatened to swallow me whole, for that period of my life was chaotic, unstable and fraught with mental difficulties that threatened to permanently derail my existence. The lush silence and serenity of bookstores was my succor. Books soothed me and while my life was a tenuous balance of shit, bookstores always welcomed my desperate visits. I haven’t been to a bookstore, independent, or chain, in ages, which speaks to the tragedy befalling this formerly thriving industry.
After I’d had my fill of the bookstore, I headed to the cashier line, realizing it would be my last time in this Barnes & Noble. Ahead of me was a very tall Chinese man. By his side was a young boy, and his daughter, of about 12, who was equally tall for her age (a tad taller than me, who is not tall for any age). The cashier finished up with the previous customer and then said loudly, even animatedly, to the Chinese gentleman, “I can help you now sir.” After he paid and left, she began daydreaming or something and I stood waiting to be called out of spite because there was no reason for me not to walk up to the counter. But I wanted to be called too. I wanted to be noticed and courted, treated like a valued customer. But she was too busy looking at something to her right. I stood there for a long time and finally, she looked up and said, “Oh, are you ready to be helped?” and I said, “Uh yeah,” trying to feign annoyance. I hate to be ignored and most times, in a vital, customer-dependent business, I will receive a customer’s treatment.
But now, I was being authentically disregarded by a woman who will lose this job within the week. She has no need for someone like me and no need to play the friendly part. Who cares if I complain to her boss? She disinterestedly treated me like someone who needed to pay for a book, not like a customer. She was dismissive and curt and without the artificial treat-the-customer-well dynamic at play, I got the real deal. I know where Amanda R stood!
It’s OK, I don’t need bookstores any more, either. Good luck Amanda R, may your travels bring you riches and happiness.