Wednesday, November 12, 2014

We Visit Barnes & Noble

When your correspondent lived on the Upper West Side of New York, one of the happiest places on earth was the Lincoln Center Barnes & Noble.  Many an hour (and many the dollar) was spent there in satisfied bliss.  Few things are more wonderful than browsing the stacks of a major bookstore, discovering new authors, or finding books by already beloved names. 

Being Barnes & Noble, there was also an extensive remainder section, for those interested in cheap books (and who isn’t?), as well as one of the most elaborate children’s books sections in the city.  What bliss.

Sadly, that Barnes & Noble was closed to make way for a Century 21, a clothing store.  Sigh.  I suppose we must have clothes, too, but they are a poor substitute for books.  (Indeed, one must be careful before some entrepreneur creates wearable books…)

After moving uptown – aesthetically and culturally the greatest mistake of your correspondent’s life – bookstores became scarcer.  It was only by zipping through other parts of town that I could dip into the Union Square Barnes & Noble, or, better still, Books of Wonder in the West Village or the Strand in the East.  (Both stores should be consecrated, and rest on hallowed ground.)  So, it was with a great deal of anticipation that we prepared to head to the Barnes & Noble on West 82nd to hear a talk presented by the authors Grand Opera: The Story of the Met.  The presentation was wonderful.  Sadly, the bookstore was not.

Though I am willing to admit that I am cranky and out of touch, I was amazed at how bookstores have morphed and degraded into high-end junk shops.  Don’t believe me?  Well, there on the parlor level of what is now, probably, the flagship B&N store, book-buyers can select Batman, Superman or Green Lantern figures.  Fortunately, Dickens doesn’t take up too much space.

Nearby, there are rows upon rows of Party Games.  Beyond that, Jigsaw Puzzles.  Standing silent sentinel in a center aisle are Star Wars light sabers and Dr. Who toys.  Not to mention a whole section of This Season’s Must-Play Games.

The café on the top floor does a brisk business, and yards of space has been cleared away to make room for a Nook kiosk, to sell the Barnes & Noble Kindle knockoff. 

And room for actual books shrinks…

I know that the book world has changed, and that the Internet and books to download have altered the landscape forever.  Bibliophiles and aesthetes are a dying breed, and New York’s book-culture is a shadow of its former self.  (New York was once the epicenter of the book world; no such place exists any longer.)  But we here at the Jade Sphinx are always too well aware of what we lose with every technological gain.  And the death of the hard-copy book trade – which was, for all intents and purposes, just abandoned by both the industry and book-buyers – may be a cultural and intellectual blow from which we may never recover.

While I love (and own two Kindle devices), there is less serendipity book-shopping online than there is in a physical bookstore.  How many readers have browsed through the stacks only to find just the ‘right’ book ‘magically’ fall into their hands?  Or, have run into authors, neighbors or other interesting people?  (Two of the most interesting conversations I’ve had in bookstores were with actors David Warner and Richard Thomas, both of whom I ran into at the now-gone Lincoln Center Barnes & Noble.)  Or make a realization paging through a random volume that left shockwaves rippling through life for years to come?

Better yet, who does not get a thrill running a hand over a new book, holding it close and inhaling its heady ink and new binding smell?  Or marveling at brightly colored illustrations in a new children’s book?  Or just being surrounded by books – a sensation both sensual and homey.

Geraldine Brooks wrote:  for to know a man's library is, in some measure, to know his mind.  As the once-great bookstores of our once-great cities recede before dwindling away completely, can the same be said for our minds?

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