killing time at the bookstore – not the library

A quick observation – while reading a New York Times article on the closing of Barnes & Noble stores, I was immediately struck by their first interviewee’s comment: I kill time at the bookstore.

The theme of the article is that bookstores are used in non book purchasing ways just as often, and that the demise of a brick and mortar store is saddening those who don’t buy anything on top of both employees and those who do enjoy purchasing while they browse.

Or just browsing, in general. Amazon does a fairly good job of this but it’s far from the real thing.

I couldn’t help thinking about this situation in terms of libraries: because that’s what libraries are for. I think rather than talking about libraries attempting to simulate the bookstore experience – comfortable furniture, events, coffee – we could think of this from the perspective of the large chain bookstore taking over the library’s role in the community.

When it’s far more convenient to get to a Borders or Barnes & Noble (and there are more of them, making it easier to just pop in wherever you are), why bother funding libraries? If they let you hang out and read as much as you want (again, the interviewee talks about reading a book a chapter at a time when he comes in with time to kill), what need are libraries fulfilling, other than letting you check the books out without paying something on top of your taxes?

Why not rethink this upsetting situation in which bookstores are closing as an opportunity for libraries to make their case as the original entities fulfilling this role, and as an essential part of the community?

It seems to me that “community” spaces are more and more private, commercial spaces in the US. The bookstore, the coffee shop, the gym. I can’t remember ever going to a community center in my entire life. And my local library in Ypsilanti is very isolated, a drive away from where I live downtown, and is not even on public transit (which I use most of the time rather than driving). It’s easier for me to wander into the Barnes & Noble or Borders (or three) that are on my local errand runs – and that are on multiple bus lines – than to take a trip out of my way to the library.

Instead of focusing on single focal points, why not a distributed form of libraries – small storefronts, if you will? I can’t think of anything that could serve a community better than more spread-out, accessible, convenient service that promotes itself clearly and loudly as an antidote to disappearing bookstores – and as an irreplaceable part of the private-but-public fabric of the community.

5 thoughts on “killing time at the bookstore – not the library”

  1. I only recently learned the term “third places” (or is it “third spaces”?), but quite like the idea.

    A third place is a bookstore, café, library, or community center, anywhere that you frequent outside of (1) home and (2) work or school.

    You’re absolutely right, of course, about bookstores serving as third places in this respect, and about how their loss means more than just the loss of a place to obtain books. It’s the loss of a physical place, a cultural/social space, to spend time – something that Amazon does not provide.

    Why is it, I wonder, that so many people’s third places these days are commercial establishments (like bookstores) rather than public ones (like libraries)? In my hometown, at least, in my case, the library is right down the street, very easy walking distance, and it’s been recently renovated, so it’s actually pretty nice. But it still feels much more institutional, plain, dreary, than the warm, cozy atmosphere of a proper bookstore. And they rarely have books that I’m looking for. But, there’s also no bookstores really in my hometown – they’re all in strip malls along the highway, outside of walking distance for any residential community. Which is a whole other can of worms… but of course that’s hardly the case everywhere, so never mind.

  2. Any thoughts on the bookstore vs. library struggle in Japan? I have many friends who shun stores but feed off of the libraries over there. In the U.S. I avoid chain bookstores, but in Tokyo I usually find the most amazing stuff at Book-Off.

  3. You touched on something I think is really important and that is location. Albion has decided they have outgrown their library that’s in an old house in the downtown of the village and is building a new one – in a vacant strip mall- because of ‘all the parking’. Next they’ll bitch that the down town is dying, which it is because every time they build something new its NOT down town. The library should be the in the center of all public spaces. It should be near where people live so they can walk there. Brockport did the same thing (relocated the library out of the village). Don’t people want kids and other non-drivers visiting the library? If adding a coffee shop peaks peoples interest, then add that too.

  4. Thank you for the link to that article. I’m really shocked that Barnes & Noble is suffering so much that it’s putting itself up for sale as a company. The individual store closing in New York worries me as well. There is a similar “landmark” Barnes & Noble store in Philadelphia, and I don’t know what I would do if it ever closed down. It is a community gathering space, just like the small park right next to it.

    I think part of what makes Barnes & Noble so nice as a public space is that the atmosphere is so informal. You can drink coffee, talk on your cell phone, wander in drunkenly with friends, and sit on the floor or in one of the comfy couches reading. It’s clean, it’s well-lit, it’s spacious, and there are huge windows.

    I feel like more traditional libraries, in contrast, are more intimidating. You’re supposed to be quiet and not take food anywhere near the books. In university libraries, there are guards by the entrance who check your credentials on the way in and have you open your bag for them on the way out. In the libraries I’ve had experience with, the aisles between the shelves are very narrow (definitely no room to put a one-person sofa), which doesn’t encourage browsing. The ubiquitous fluorescent lighting doesn’t help, either.

    It seems to me that all of the libraries I have visited put a lot of effort into making the entrance area comfortable while the stacks remain bleak and industrial. When I hear about a library that is set up to encourage reading and browsing in the stacks themselves (like the library attached to the manga museum in Kyoto, or the city library in Yokohama), I get really excited. I wish places like the Free Library of Philadelphia were more like that. Location, as you say, is very important. I think atmosphere plays a major role, too.

    The more distributed form of libraries that you describe sounds wonderful. Because of the location (and rent) and atmosphere (and upkeep) issues, though, it also sounds quite expensive. Wouldn’t it be nice if some city or university were to try it out, though…

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