“The essential point to grasp is that in dealing with capitalism we are dealing with an evolutionary process. . . . The fundamental impulse that sets and keeps the capitalist engine in motion comes from the new consumers’ goods, the new methods of production or transportation, the new markets, the new forms of industrial organization that capitalist enterprise creates.” — Joseph A. Schumpeter, Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy
Borders closes this week, after a six-week countdown to bankruptcy, and the selling off, at constantly-dropping prices, of everything from books to bookshelves. This is the fourth local Borders that has closed in the past few months, two in Washington, DC and two in Maryland. I knew all of them well and spent considerable time and money in each one. On the flyleaf of every book I’ve bought from them is my name, the date of purchase, and the location of the store. The last Borders book I bought—a collection of J. G. Ballard’s best short stories—was from the Silver Spring store and it’s closing was duly noted in the flyleaf.
But it’s a cruel world out there (a doggie-dog world, as my students would say) and Borders is proof that everybody is someone else’s lunch. An independent bookstore in Takoma Park, Maryland, that many of us loved, Chuck and Dave’s, finally succumbed some years ago to the relentless pressure of discount pricing that the local Borders provided. And now Borders itself, Nook-less, and struggling to counteract Barnes and Noble on one side and the gigantic presence of Amazon on the other, has been devoured. There are rumors that the Silver Spring store will be taken over by Books-A-Million, an outfit that could charitably be described as ‘a book distribution outlet.’ Try asking its staffers for books by Auden, Barth, Nabokov, Proust, or Tolstoy, and you may be asked to repeat the question.
As bookstores go, Borders was formulaic, as befits a contemporary corporate franchise. From store to store you could count on the same titles in the same sections. The effect, I suppose, was a predictability much like that of any major chain from MacDonald’s to Goodyear. But Borders staffers seemed to love books and know quite a bit about them; they had favorites and knew where to find them. If you asked they would drop what they were doing and lead you to comparable titles. It’s true that the reshelving process rarely occurred in some stores so that you’d find Lolita shacked up with Jerome Dickey and Isaac Newton in the Psychology section, but that could simply have been indication of a lively clientele constantly on the move.
Depending on the location, Borders appealed to the local demographic, but still had a depth in its selection of which Barnes and Noble still seem only fitfully aware. If you wanted Herodotus they had him, along with Tacitus and Livy; if it was Freud you were after they had his works—and Jung’s and Adler’s as well. Jeffrey Deaver? Shelf after shelf, but Erle Stanley Gardener, Dorothy Sayers, Kurt Mitchell, and even George MacDonald could be found. Religion and philosophy were pretty well represented at Borders too, although I couldn’t help notice that Nietzsche invariably occupied more shelf space in every store than any other philosopher. But their selection of Taoist, Confucianist, Buddhist, Hindu, and Jewish philosophy was excellent and far outstripped anything you could find at Barnes and Noble. Again, while B & N gives a lot of real estate to religion and spirituality, most of it seems to run to the lighter variety of “inspirational” works that clutter the waiting rooms of medical offices.
So Borders is gone and Barnes and Noble has won—for the time being. Yet, I don’t believe that e-readers like Kindle, the Nook, or the Sony reader spell the end of “real” books nor do I think that brick-and-mortar bookstores will completely disappear any time soon. And while the statistics that one hears about American reading habits are appalling if true (a majority of American adults don’t even read one book a year), I’m guessing that places like DC and the Washington Metro area are probably typical of many cities in America with universities, high concentrations of professionals, and diverse populations of people who read a great deal.
Even so, the small, independent booksellers are quietly dropping out of sight, a fact greatly to be mourned. They simply can’t compete with the buying power of the bigger stores. They offer topical interest (every issue of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine since 1941!), quietude broken only by the buzz of fluorescent lighting or the flatulence of the owner’s elderly cats, and comfy chairs. Very often there will be a pot of coffee or tea simmering, and a variety of biscuits at hand—the small comforts of a literate society.
Every breakthrough in technology brings both untold blessings and considerable gnashing of teeth. Gutenberg’s printing press could churn out 3,600 pages per day as opposed to the few that could be produced by hand. Gone was the scriptorium, the rooms full of monks nodding over their copies of the Bible or Christian classics. Now eager readers of the latest works by Luther and Erasmus could have their own books, thus inciting revolutions in thinking that spread like a virus.
The transitions between technologies are rarely smooth because they cannot be planned for and their effects remain to be seen. Understanding the changes at first may be like encountering a tsunami at sea—it’s traveling 600 miles per hour but it’s only an inch high. By the time it hits the shallows of public awareness it’s too late to get out of the way. This is what Joseph Schumpeter called the Creative Destruction of capitalism. Every new technology destroys the previous one and sets up the conditions for its own destruction. While we benefit from the innovation we lose the traditions. “This process of Creative Destruction is the essential fact about capitalism,” he said. “It is what capitalism consists in and what every capitalist concern has got to live in.”
A few years ago I got a Kindle, a gift from my wife, because it saved on shelf space, the books were cheaper, and ultimately it saved trees. My gain in efficiency and conservation helped to bring about the demise of Borders, a “clean, well-lighted place,” in which ‘real’ books could be lingered over, paged through, bought and carried out. I love the feel, the smell, the texture of a book in hand, and I’ve got the bookshelves to prove it. And while the wheel of innovation turns and brings its own pleasures, I shall, God willing, shuffle off this mortal coil years from now, surrounded by loved ones and books. These are the wistful joys we carry into our temporary futures.