It’s an ironic plot twist that seems to belong in the fiction section.
The same New Yorkers who once bemoaned the departure of the independent biblio boutiques are now mourning the demise of the very mega bookstores that displaced the mom-and-pops.
The news that Borders is closing its 399 stores – including six in New York City – starting on Friday has literate Gothamites lamenting that the sprawling complexes were far more than emporiums to buy books, leaf through magazines and hit a reasonably clean loo.
The giant stores morphed into ad-hoc civic centers offering readers the chance to meet the authors of the books they loved, and to introduce their kids to the wit of Shel Silverstein and Roald Dahl.
They offered opportunities for singles to meet other like-minded prospects over a shared appreciation of Gabriel Garcia Marquez or Rita Mae Brown. And they beat what is taking their place – empty storefronts or high-margined mass-market retailers that contribute little to intellectual life.
“When the Barnes and Noble and other big stores pushed out all the little people, we were in a rage,” Upper West Sider Francoise Simon recalled ruefully. Now the retired teacher longs for the Lincoln Center Barnes and Noble – where she could always duck out of the rain or meet a friend – to return.
The mass Borders extinction comes just six months after that Barnes and Noble closed, and a couple years after Barnes and Noble pulled out of its Chelsea and Astor Place locations.
It also follows an earlier wave of Borders’ depatures, in neighborhoods such as Kips Bay and lower Manhattan. Barnes and Noble closed three NYC stores in the last three years, but has opened two, noted a spokeswoman, one in TriBeCa and the another on East 86th Street.
Even those who stand to profit from the closures aren’t cheering.
“It’s not a good thing,” said Bryan Gonzalez, owner of Westsider Rare and Used Books on Broadway. “This year, I even shopped at Borders a few times,” he said.
Upper West Siders in particular mourn the transmogrification of their famously intellectual, quirky and idiosyncratic neighborhood as its marketplace of ideas gives way to chain stores with made-in-China merchandise. They see a kulturkampf as the traditional West Side – the sinecure of Fairway, bagels, opera, NPR listeners and PBS tote bags -- gives way to the cult of Kardashian-like consumerism.
“I really miss the Barnes and Noble,” admitted Susan Lynn, an Upper West Sider and member of “The Busy Ladies Short Story Group,” who had an annual membership that entitled her to book discounts and valued the megaplex as a high-brow neighborhood meeting place.
The demise of big bookstores, like the decline of newspapers, “is the passing of a way of life, the end of an era and a culture of people reading. Reading is such an important part of who people are and what forms them,” said Lynn.
She was lunching the other day at Café Sontina, a cozy West 69th Street bistro where the movie “You’ve Got Mail” shot scenes of the children’s bookstore, “The Little Shop Around the Corner” owned in the movie by Meg Ryan’s character, Kathleen.
In the film, her bookstore was gobbled up by a conglomerate called Fox Books run by Tom Hanks’ character, Joe. The two foes fell madly in love as a result of chatting on the Internet, though, so things turned out all right in the end.
Yet, the same Internet culture that facilitated the meeting of the two book worms is a major force behind the demolition of their professions, mused Chris Kim, owner of Café Sontina, and a neighborhood resident. “My customers bring their e-books and their iPads and sit here for hours,” he said.
“I’m the problem,” admitted Tony Phillippe, 33, an assistant film editor strolling past Café Sontina. He loves his Upper West Side address, but his home is small so “I have to make it work.” He and his fiancée now consume all their media – books and movies – digitally. “I read on my iPad now,” he said.