2011-06-03 / Columnists

The Rockaway Irregular

Books And Other Important Things
By Stuart Mirsky

Bookstores, like most businesses, have always come and gone – but mostly, these days, they seem to have gone. Here in Rockaway we have felt it less, perhaps, because there have never been a lot of bookstores on the peninsula. As a boy I used to travel into the Village where I would haunt the many bookstores that once proliferated there. When I discovered a new one it was like entering another country. I’d spend hours combing through the aisles, studying the shelves, picking up the books, finding new authors and searching out old ones I loved to read. Rockaway never had much of that to offer and what few local stores carrying books that it spawned, never held a candle to the fine old stores to be found in Manhattan – either downtown where the hip folks hung or uptown where the tonier crowds browsed and made selections. The big box stores like Barnes and Noble and Borders did a lot of the small shops in, though. Only the specialty stores managed to hang on as the giants gobbled up the business back in the late ’80s and into the ’90s.

I worked in a bookstore after college for a brief time, by the way – The Strand, a vintage used bookstore whose cachet is well established among the literati in New York. On the east side of Broadway at the corner of 13th Street in Manhattan, in the shadow of NYU, The Strand held strange court with its open bins and tables replete with used books and vintage collectors editions and its “review copies” of the newer ones. (Review books are those that had been distributed gratis by publishers to prospective media – many of them ended up in The Strand’s basement in those days because the reviewers sold them to The Strand and other used outlets of lesser renown.)

The Strand is still around today but its era is passing. In the ’90s they expanded and opened a substantial second store, their “annex” on the edge of the South Street Seaport. I went there recently looking for the store while at the Seaport with my family, figuring I’d check out their offerings, maybe buy a few for my grandkids. Too late. The Strand at the Seaport was gone.

In Rockaway the nearest bookstore we had in recent years was in the Five Towns. There a Walden Books, which had taken over a previous local store, was itself taken over by Borders and turned into Borders Express, a small outlet for the giant bookselling operation bearing the Borders name. Recently that Borders Express outlet went the way of all flesh and most bookstores these days. The parent company, Borders, for those who haven’t heard yet, has filed for bankruptcy. It’s hoping for a sale to a company that can fund it long enough to put it back on its feet.

Perhaps some readers here will remember that it was Borders that participated in the first of two Literary Arts Festivals we held at Fort Tilden in Gateway? They were still a vibrant concern then and were glad to open a one day store at our festival to help us make the event work. They sold something like $3,000 worth of books that day but, apparently, it wasn’t enough because they declined to return the follow-up festival a year later. I guess their overhead was still too high and their profit margins too thin.

Today, Barnes and Noble, Borders’ larger rival, is still keeping its head above water but just barely with its stock price in steep decline – until recently, anyway, when, having put themselves up for sale, they finally got an offer, albeit at a much lower stock price than their shares had once commanded. It’s a tough business. What killed it (or, at least, has put it into such steep decline)? The easy answer is the Internet, most especially online sales sites like Amazon.com – especially Amazon.com, which made its bones as a book retailer before branching out into electronics, clothing, appliances, etc.

Without the need for physical stores (and the costs these involve) and relying on tight inventory management and the marketing reach of the Web, Amazon has pushed the giant bookstores aside – just as they once did the same to the little guys. Do we miss them? As someone who has always had a love affair with books and the stores that sold them, I do.

I miss the endless hours of haunting the aisles and studying the covers on the shelf. Even the giant chain stores like Borders and Barnes and Noble afforded me that pleasure though not nearly as much as the little stores once had. The Borders Express in Cedarhurst, the closest thing we had to a local bookstore, closed down a while back leaving an awful gap. Recently a children’s bookstore, The Blue Door, opened diagonally across the street from the now departed Borders annex with a large children’s section and a few very high priced adult books. My wife and I took our grandchildren there not long ago and spent a bit of cash on the kids. But I found little pleasure in the brief time I spent perusing their very limited adult selection – a few offerings from the New York Times bestseller list, some academically approved popularizations of history and some women’s fiction (not that there’s anything wrong with that!).

More recently, down the road a few streets from The Blue Door, I saw yet another bookstore in Borders‘ wake. Buy the Book offers not shelves but tables – row after row – of remaindered publishers’ stock. These are unsold editions the publisher couldn’t move at the list price, now marked down. You can purchase unused books from them on the cheap but you have to look carefully at the stock because many remaindered books are remaindered for good reason. Of course, you can find gems that way. I found my all time favorite novel, The Golden Warrior by Hope Muntz, in a remainders store like Buy the Book back in the ’70s when such outlets were common.

With the shake up in the book business today, partly driven by Internet retailers like Amazon and partly reflecting the revolution in publishing which Amazon has also been part of (they’re Kindle book reader has begun making bound books obsolete while their efforts to corner the digital print self-publishing market have eased the entry of new authors into the marketplace, further pressuring the margins of traditional publishing), one almost feels grateful for the return of remainder outlets like Buy the Book. I recently picked up two new hardcovers in the Captain Alatriste series by bestselling Spanish author Arturo Perez-Reverte and a third book for my wife at paperback prices.

I wouldn’t have bought them at list. I don’t like the Alatriste series enough for that but they were worth paperback prices to me at least. And I even liked the two I bought that day, restoring my faith in Perez-Reverte who authored another of my favorite novels, The Fencing Master. There’s something to be said for the kind of bookstore where you can troll through the tables and find unexpected pleasure again. (Even my wife held her tongue while I browsed and she’s not famous for tolerating my book addiction – maybe buying her one, too, made the difference?)

So everything’s changing and so are bookstores and publishing itself. And maybe books, too. At least there are still new authors to explore and reading opportunities I might otherwise have passed by. I’m as guilty as anyone in the pending demise of the bookstore giants because I like cheap prices via Amazon. Most books aren’t for immediate gratification anyway but for moments when we have enough time to sit down and lose ourselves for a while. So I can wait a few days for delivery. Still, there’s nothing like the browsing experience for book aficionados, so some of us, anyway, will keep looking for the occasional non-virtual bookstore where you can still walk around and pick up and handle, and even read a bit from, the books on display.

As a writer as well as a reader I regret the passing of bookselling and publishing as I knew them. But what really remains unchanged in our lifetimes when you think about it? I’ll be doing my part in this column in the future to intersperse the occasional review of some book or other I feel lucky to have come across, with my usual commentary. I hope readers of The Wave will bear with me. Maybe together we can contribute, even in only a small way, to preserving the culture of books that once seduced some of us a long time ago.

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