Do bookstores matter?

For years—perhaps decades—my dad would walk to the flagship Kroch’s and Brentano’s store on South Wabash on Chicago, spending his lunch hour among the famously knowledgeable booksellers and the then-amazing array of inventory. I only remember being in that downtown store once or twice, but the mall Kroch’s and Brentano’s in the town where I grew up was a key setting in my childhood love of reading.

We went to the mall almost every night. If I wasn’t scanning the skies for Soviet bombers or taping Top 40 songs off the boombox, I was likely one of three places: the Sears arcade, the mall food court, or the little mall bookstores.

My parents would buy McDonald’s coffee and smoke in the food court, while I would itch for the trip to Kroch’s and Brentano’s or B. Dalton to check for a new Choose Your Own Adventure, Be An Interplanetary Spy, Star Wars, or Dragonlance books.

It was part of every trip to the mall, usually Dalton’s first; then Kroch’s. In Kroch’s, I would stand in the role-playing game aisle while my dad went on his appointed rounds through the store. That is where I fell in love with Star Trek and the Dungeon Master Guide. It’s where I first tried to pronounce the name Cthulthu, and where I discovered the existence of dice with more than six sides.

When I was old enough to start braving the mall on my own, it was always Kroch’s and Brentano’s where I would meet up with my parents after my private adventures at Kaleidoscope or Babbage’s or Musicland.

Today I still have occasion to go to that same mall every once in awhile. Those stores are gone, but a large Barnes and Noble—ten times larger and a thousand times “nicer” than either of those relics—is an anchor store at one end of the mall. I go there with my own wife and children, and we too always seem to end up meeting at the bookstore; however, I almost never buy anything other than a cup of incorrectly prepared coffee.

From a retail standpoint, the old mall bookstores were not Super Destinations for a book lover in the way that Barnes & Noble or Border’s have tried to be. But they were destinations just the same.

Turns out it is the books, not the store that create the destination. And as the chains have relied more and more on straight-up recommendations from Ingram reps or whoever waters down the New & Notable table to the lowest common denominator, they have lost sight of that which always made their stores most interesting: the discovery of new and intriguing works.

Today my book purchases almost always happen over the Internet or via my Kindle’s WhisperSync. My own experience of that joy of discovery has been left to scans of blog posts, friends’ recommendations, Twitter crowdsourcing or a monthly ritual with Locus magazine.

With this news that Borders is closing 200 Waldenbooks in malls nationwide, I remember again the little mall chains that paved the way for today’s failing superstores, preceding them both in lease and in failure.

I’m not smart enough to know what will save publishing, or the book trade, but I am wise enough to mourn the passing of bookstores that are actually about books and reading rather than a merchandising consultant’s platonic ideal of same.

Wandering a bookstore has been a Morrow-male tradition, a pastime well suited for the bookish, friendly, and affably antisocial men we seem to produce. We are comfortable with ideas, with solitude. Today, though, you’re more likely to find us wandering the intertubes than a bookstore.

Sometimes that makes me sad.

What are your bookstore memories?

Elsewhere: The death of mall bookstores and the death of publishing

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