The Barnes & Noble I’ve worked at for the past six years closed on June 13, 2009.
Some writer reading this will cheer at the appearance of cracks in the façade of one bibliolithic giant. Others will shrug and say that B&N is just getting what it deserves for killing the independents. Still others will gather round their Kindles to beat their chests and shout, “Paper is dead! Long live the ebook!”
But I am here to say that an Asimovian intellect was snuffed out in a neighborhood that could ill afford to lose an more positrons. Sandwiched between a food court and Famous Footwear and Lenscrafters and a line up featuring Firestone Tires, Pearle Vision, MacDonald’s, Wendy’s, IHOP, Applebee’s and Meineke Muffler; B&N was the only place you could buy something besides the latest James Patterson, TIME magazine or The National Enquirer from anything but a grocery store rack.
The neighborhood is now brain dead and it’s all B&N’s fault.
And your fault.
And my fault.
I’m not going to belabor the point of guilt except to point out that intellect will die where it is not nurtured. The neighborhood of the mall that held “my” B&N is diverse and made up largely of welfare to middle middle class blue-collar families who hold service jobs and often teeter on the sharp edge of a paycheck-to-paycheck existence.
Even so, my B&N sold books. Not-so-many CDs and DVDs because the corporate prices were obviously too high and there was Best Buy a few blocks away. We sold not-too-much food – for obvious reasons – and only a bit of coffee because there were Starbucks, Caribou, Burger King and McCafé within walking distance. No, this store sold BOOKS. We sold them well enough to keep the store open for seven years despite the fact that over that same seven-year period, the mall died. Mervyn’s was the first main-line store to vacate its massive block of space. Others followed: Victoria’s Secret; Bed, Bath and Beyond; Hot Topic; Old Navy; the Pretzel Factory and JC Penny moved out until it was just Sears and B&N anchoring the once busy mall.
After Macy's on the far end closed its doors, B&N gave up the ghost and announced it was closing as well. There was no protest, no editorials, and no “save-the-mall” campaign. Customers sniffed, said they were sad and added, “I’m not surprised.” It’s interesting to note that the previous comment was race-independent. Why were the diverse people of such a diverse community “not surprised” that this intellectual icon was jumping ship like rats off the Lusitania? Some even commented that they were surprised it had lasted as long as it did.
Why? I believe that the answer is that those who love the written word had chosen – and regularly DO choose – to pull away from those who do not care about the written word. They retreat rather than become missionaries of the written word.
We disciples of the written word might borrow the lessons of Seventeenth and Eighteenth Century Christian missionaries. Instead of pulling back when the heathen pressed close, the Church sent more missionaries. Those who were not called to the front lines sent money to support those who were. The men, women and children on location assessed the needs of the people they were called to serve and established hospitals, clinics, schools, dug freshwater wells, introduced new agricultural techniques and established libraries after codifying spoken languages. Only after they had helped increase the quality of life did they turn to the spiritual message that shaped their own lives and drove them. Of COURSE there were abuses! But most missionaries didn’t make the mistake many non-Christians make in accusing them of destroying cultures: they didn’t assume that the indigenes were stupid and unaware of what they were doing when they accepted the missionary’s God.
When we see bookstores in poor neighborhoods, instead of “tsking” and wondering why anyone would put a store “there”, we might make an effort to patronize the store and support literacy efforts in nearby schools, clubs, libraries and youth groups. Instead of fearing for our lives if we were to be “caught out in the dark” at “that” store, we might go on line and check the crime stats for “that” store and the one we regularly go to at The Nice Mall – we might be vindicated or stunned depending on our viewpoint.
I suppose then, that this might be a call to mission, a “God call”, so to speak, for those of us who read the written word in whatever form – paper, Kindle, online, text or twitter. It is a call to take up our reading material, to “go and make readers of all nations, bibliotizing them in the name of whatever writers you are passionate about, teaching them to absorb all that they can: and lo, books (in some way, shape or form) are with you, even unto the end of the age.” (With apologies to St. Matthew, Chapter 28, verses 19-20)