The new Ridge Hill mall in Yonkers is beautiful, if you can use the word beautiful to describe a mall. It features a state-of-the-art movie theater, a children's play area, restaurants of every description, and shops numerous enough to meet every need you can imagine and some that you probably can't.
On a recent visit to Ridge Hill, my wife and I enjoyed everything about it. And yet something seemed to be missing.
It took a while for us to figure out what it was. Ridge Hill has no bookstore.
This seems like a sign of the times. If such a mall had been built 10 or 20 years ago, it's unthinkable that it would have lacked a bookstore. It would have had a huge Barnes & Noble or Borders, which, on most nights, would have been packed with visitors.
It wasn't that long ago that bookstores were an important part of everyday life -- an important part of our civic life, our communal life. If you cared about books and reading, a Barnes & Noble or a Borders seemed like a cross between a cathedral and a playground. As large as libraries, they didn't merely carry bestsellers; they also made room for the rare and the obscure. At a well-stocked megastore, you could spend hours losing yourself in the history of philosophy or the complexities of astronomy or the subtleties of nineteenth-century literary criticism.
These stores were also notable for their atmosphere of hospitality. Most of them were generously provided with comfortable chairs and couches where you could read as long as you wished. You felt welcome in these stores -- to browse without buying, to meet with friends, to sit by yourself and dream.
Of course, even at the time, everyone knew that behind this atmosphere of hospitality there was a great degree of commercial shrewdness. In their early years, the megastores were locked in commercial combat with independent bookstores, and as soon as the independents were vanquished -- in other words, as soon as the competition disappeared -- the hospitality started to fade away. Barnes & Noble has never completely lost it -- you can still browse there as long as you wish; the clerks are never breathing down your neck, asking you if you're going to buy that book you've been handling -- but the couches and the plush chairs are things of the past.
In recent years, of course, Borders has gone out of business, and Barnes & Noble has become somewhat less of a bookstore as it struggles to survive. The shelves that used to hold the most remarkably unexpected books now hold other things. You may not find an extensive astronomy section anymore, but you will find a lot of Star Wars Legos. There are fewer serious works of philosophy, but you'll find "Harry Potter and Philosophy" and "The Hunger Games and Philosophy." The psychology section at the outpost I go to is so small that I've never been able to find it, although there are a handful of psychology titles in self-improvement -- dour intellectuals like Freud, who believed that the best anyone can hope for in life is "ordinary unhappiness," sitting side by side with shiny new self-help books that inanely tell us that we can "have it all."
So the absence of a bookstore at Ridge Hill shouldn't have been much of a surprise. Bookstores have been dying for a while now. People who want to buy books find them online and download them onto their Nooks or Kindles.
It's been said that in this age of the e-reader, more people are reading than ever, and that the "brick and mortar" bookstore, therefore, has simply outlived its usefulness. But to me, walking through a mall without a bookstore, where every storefront is screaming at you to Buy! Buy! Buy!, it feels as if we've lost something precious. A good bookstore invites us not only to buy, but to browse and think and dream. The Ridge Hill mall is beautiful, but to me, it feels like a ghost town.
Brian Morton directs the creative writing program at Sarah Lawrence College and is the author of "Starting Out in the Evening" and other novels.