There are few things in this world sadder than an empty bookshelf. When bookstores go out of business, books fade away at an increasing clip and the empty bookshelves multiply. The aisles feel hollow and sad. You avert your eyes from all the barren spaces and you feel a chill, because it feels like you're surrounded by dead things. I've attended the closing sales of many different bookstores around the country, and that sense of desperation and loss is something unique. It's always sad when a bookstore dies, and that sadness never gets easier.
On Saturday, I visited the Westwood Village Barnes & Noble on its final day of operation. The biggest bookstore in West Seattle had announced its closing late last year, but that announcement wasn't much of a surprise to neighbors, who have watched the outdoor shopping mall sprout an alarming number of vacant storefronts.
A Barnes & Noble shutting down doesn't feel like your typical bookstore closing. There aren't the ridiculous going-out-of-business sales that you might expect, for one thing — booksellers simply pack up any books that don't sell and ship them off to other local Barnes & Noble stores to add to their own stock. And all the empty bookshelves are pushed into corners and marked for other stores in the region, too — Woodinville is taking a few fixtures from West Seattle, and other destinations are marked with mysterious numbers. It's not so much a death by starvation as a case of capitalistic autocannibalism.
But even though the corporate shuffling took some of the solemnity out of the closing, people were still sad. Booksellers were losing their jobs. Customers were losing their neighborhood bookstore.
"I'll miss you guys," one man told a cashier as he bought some magazines. "I'll miss this place."
Cashiers had to answer the same barrage of questions over and over: Yes, they learned about the closing at around the same time that everyone else did. Yes, in fact, it was "pretty sudden." While they didn't have the exact numbers onhand, "about six" Westwood Village Barnes & Noble employees were staying with the company, moving to the downtown location. No, the cafe had unfortunately run out of chocolate chip cookies.
With most of the shelves emptied, the thing that's most striking about the Barnes & Noble is the sheer size of the place. It's the world's most welcoming warehouse — huge and airy and tan and without all the aisles of books the large windows allow a shocking amount of light inside. A kid runs around the children's section as their parents try to find one last book they can take home together.
Barnes & Noble, still the nation's largest bookselling chain, posted slightly higher holiday sales over last year, though earnings are still expected to decline. The University Village location closed a few years ago due to rising rents. You can still visit Barnes & Nobles in downtown Seattle, in Northgate, and in Tukwila. But the chain, let's be honest, is in decline.
I worked at Borders Books & Music as that chain began its swift and steady descent into nothingness. Even after I left, I watched closely as Borders mismanaged itself into obsolescence. While it has never felt as ineptly managed as Borders, it's clear to just about anyone that Barnes & Noble headed for a similar fate as its onetime rival. You can only tread water for so long before your limbs don't work anymore.
The same qualities that used to work for Barnes & Noble — its size, its centralized management structure, its proximity to malls, its part-time sales force — are now detriments. Independent bookstores proved to be more nimble, more hyperlocal, more customer-focused than a chain ever could be. And now, after three decades of indies suffering at the hands of big-box chain bookstores, the roles have reversed. Barnes & Noble is suffering while independent bookstores thrive. But I don't know any booksellers who are cheering.
In too many small cities and rural areas in the United States, Barnes & Noble is the only bookstore for miles around. If the chain were to disappear, many communities around the country would no longer have a physical bookstore within an hour's drive. That's in nobody's best interest.
If you had told me twenty years ago that I would one day be lamenting the death of a corporate bookstore outpost, I probably would have thought you were insane. But on Saturday I stood inside the hollowed-out shell of a Barnes & Noble and listened to people share their sorrows over the death of a neighborhood bookstore. You would have to be made of stone to not feel some kind of heartbreak.