I don't usually spend a lot of time reading the New Republic very often, but my, I have fallen in love with Barnes and Noble, a Tribute: What the reviled chain did for our literary culture
. I grew up in a very rural area, and I remember the oasis that B&N, Waldenbooks, Borders, and all the other chain book stores offered. Where I grew up, there are few libraries and fewer bookstores. Because the towns are small, the libraries are small---and they don't have much funding for new books. The library in my hometown remains composed mostly of mysteries/thrillers and children's books, with a bit of the classics and science fiction. Although you could browse and find new things, there just wasn't that much. Let's just say you wouldn't have much luck finding Tolstoy in there---let alone Yeats.
The nearest library to me was a 15 minute drive; the nearest bookstores were a Waldenbooks and a Borders in the nearest mall, which was about an hour's drive away. Given the drive, I didn't get to go up to Borders very awesome, but I cherished every chance. Whenever I was up there, I could just browse at will. The selection was amazing. I don't know how much I learned leafing through those books. I read poetry and turned myself on to Neruda; I flipped through manga, looked at history books (biographies of Ben Franklin? why not), browsed the language learning materials, picked up books on computing because I wanted to learn about XHTML. Libraries certainly allowed you to sit all you want---but I could sit all I wanted in Borders with both a much better selection. In fact, I could bring a book into the cafe and dunk a biscotti into my hot chocolate while reading
, an activity strongly discouraged in my local library. If I got tired of reading, I could pretend to read and surreptitiously listen to the people talking books and life at the table next to mine.
That's gone now, and that's sad. Sure, that type of store's not gone from every city. I currently live in a town with a fantastic local bookstore, and the entire town patronizes them heavily; the shop is always full, there's readings all the time, and it's a wonderful place to run into people, or just sit in a chair flipping through a book. Still, not every area is big enough to support a bookstore like ours. Some places desperately need to benefit from chain economics---or else they simply can't support themselves, and the community they engender. Places like Borders were so fantastic for that sense of community and wonder. As wonderful as browsing a site like Goodreads is, as much as you can get a feel for a book by flipping through the pages available on Google Books, there's nothing quite like standing in a bookstore with rows of books surrounding you, offering you their knowledge, the worlds they contain.