Last Friday, when Borders announced it would close another twenty-eight stores in a bankruptcy restructuring that has already shut down 200 big-box outlets, the news echoed like the sound of a second shoe as it hits a hollow floor. No one who follows publishing news—or, it must be said, who has ever shopped at the West End Borders—was particularly surprised to find the Nashville store on the latest hit list. We’d already lost Davis-Kidd Booksellers (closed when its own Ohio-based parent company filed for bankruptcy), and we are far from alone. Around the state there’s hardly a town large enough to support a bookstore that hasn’t seen a literary landmark shuttered this year: Bookstar in Memphis, Carpe Librum in Knoxville, Rock Point Books in Chattanooga.
The loss of Borders has a particularly poignant symbolism. The last big, shiny bookstore left in Nashville, it sits directly across the street from a cement replica of the Parthenon, a shrine to Nashville’s notion of itself as a center of literary culture. Can a city of 600,000 people—the 25th largest city in the country—continue to call itself “the Athens of the South” if it can’t even keep a decent bookstore in business? As Nashville novelist Adam Ross noted when he heard the news, “This is becoming deeply embarrassing.”
I’ve been on the front lines of lamentation myself, but not everyone shares my sense of grief. “Bookstores are so twentieth century,” shrugged one of my friends, and he’s no illiterate. A college professor and a proud owner of an iPad, he reads constantly and widely, but he hasn’t set foot in a bookstore in years.
In practical terms, the loss of Borders won’t change much about the way Nashvillians acquire books, whether they read on the screen or on the page, because the Online-Goliath-Which-Shall-Not-Be-Named is still only a mouse-click away. More to the point, Borders is a bad bookstore: poorly stocked, staffed mostly by people who couldn’t tell you the name of the latest Pulitzer Prize-winner in fiction if Paul Harding showed up there in person. And Davis-Kidd, by the time it closed, was only a shadow of the great store it had once been. It’s impossible truly to mourn the loss of any big-box bookstore, even one kneeling at the hemline of a giant statue of the ancient goddess of wisdom, if only because the big-box model is such a stupid way to sell books.
Of course, there’s a certain amount of karma at work here. The very superstores we grieve today were largely responsible for the deaths of some of Nashville’s most cherished independents. Zibart Brothers, Mills, and Dad’s Old Books were stores where the people behind the counter seemed to have Ph.D.s in all subjects ever studied in human history. Nashville’s literati—Robert Penn Warren and Allen Tate and James Dickey, just for starters—shopped there, but these tiny, dusty, dear places that made it through the Great Depression and two World Wars disappeared forever as the brightly lit, coffee-scented, armchair-laden superstores found their way into the yuppie heart. How could they hope to hold their own against stores that offered discounts on bestsellers, the convenience of plentiful parking, and a sunny brightness that meant asthmatics could leave their Albuterol inhalers at home?
A lot of people believe that cost and convenience are the primary reasons for the demise of the big-box stores today, that Amazon has merely beaten the Borders Group at its own game. I’m not so sure. A recent Verso Advertising poll (1.5 percent margin of error) found that ninety percent of e-reader owners continue to buy print books in about the same numbers as e-books, and that eighty percent of them would prefer to buy even e-books from an independent bookstore if the price were comparable to Amazon’s. Nashville, moreover, has a fair number of specialty shops and used-book venues that seem to be doing fine—BookMan/BookWoman, Fairytales, Mysteries & More, Sherlock’s, among others—and most of them have responded to the loss of Davis-Kidd, once the prime book-tour stop for visiting authors, by increasing the numbers of readings and book-signings, and by carrying more new titles than they offered before the end of the big-box era.
In truth, Borders and Davis-Kidd weren’t killed by Amazon—or, at least, Amazon did not deliver the fatal blow. They were killed by idiot corporate owners who couldn’t be responsive to the specific communities they found themselves in and who didn’t understand what readers really want in a bookstore. I don’t know any reader, even among Davis-Kidd’s most loyal customers, who really, truly loved the place after Karen Davis and Thelma Kidd sold it. Whatever the corporate rationale might have been for moving the store to the Green Hills Mall, or for stocking so many pocketbooks and t-shirts and plush toys and candles and stationery and bottles of hand lotion and CDs of ambient nature sounds, the most recent incarnation of Davis-Kidd just didn’t feel much like a bookstore.
In a bookstore, scale matters. Educated staff matter. Community matters. A bookstore is not simply a place to buy books; it’s also a place to find kindred souls. If you already know what you want to read, Amazon is almost impossible to resist. Buying a book online is easy, it’s fast, and it’s usually cheaper than the book in the store. But it’s also a lonesome experience. You run into none of those passionate readers who can be counted on to press a much-loved book into the hands of that stranger standing before the shelf, wavering. At Amazon, you gain nothing from the experience of veteran booksellers, who can tell you with confidence, “Michiko totally blew this one.” Buying a book online is effortless, but if you need a book that will change your life, Amazon can’t help you. No search field is built to answer the question, “What book will articulate these inchoate fears keeping me awake at three a.m.?”
In fact, there are plenty of independent bookstores around the country that are thriving, even in this publishing climate. And it’s worth pointing out that in Nashville even the big-box stores had their customers, disgruntled though such readers might have been. Davis-Kidd was, by corporate admission, still profitable when it closed as part of a bankruptcy reorganization, and all signs suggest that the West End Borders is profitable still: it survived the first huge round of cuts only to be sacrificed now because its lease is not open to negotiation, as the terms of the corporate bankruptcy require.
Come May, there will no longer be a bookstore of significant size and seriousness in all of Davidson County, but that sad reality is not a commentary on the literary life of Nashville. The Athens of the South can absolutely support a community bookstore. It’s only a matter of finding the right scale, staff, and location. If someone will simply build it, we will come.
[This essay originally appeared in the March 28, 2011, issue of the Nashville City Paper.]