Much as I like to stick it to the big guys generally, the Barnes & Noble
in my neighborhood has indisputably become a cherished resource for my family: as shelter, and last-minute amusement, and knee-jerk consolation on even the least promising of days. Hard to remember it now, but the book giant’s genesis at this crossroads came trailing a cinematic shadow, which tourists from thousands of miles away used to pull up and briefly acknowledge in double-decker buses before moving on to the seemingly infinite landmarks of “Sex and the City.”
I still picture these tourists returning to their home states and countries with snapshots of themselves standing outside of Jimmy Choo’s and Tiffany’s and galleries, but also the little store across our street which for many years sold an unlikely combination of cheese and antiques, yet more famously unshelved it’s overpriced inventory in 1998 to serve as Meg Ryan’s Shop Around the Corner in “You’ve Got Mail.” This was a movie, remember, about the anonymous communications between a knowledgeable children’s bookseller and the corporate, adorable titan who would finally hasten her little store’s demise.
Sounds so dated, doesn’t it? Gosh, that was only twelve years ago. I sat with my then two-year-old son on our fire escape cheering along with the extras as Meg Ryan’s bleachy unmistakable head went leading a protest from a platform built especially for the occasion (and probably these days available on eBay). That film crew camped out on our doorstep for a month, we had no idea what kind of a story was going to amount from it, but every few days the trees would simulate a different season, courtesy of the props department – first blossoms, then snow – and when at last they cleared out unexpectedly one morning, there were even a couple of prosthetics left over from autumn which we picked out of the gutters, and marveled over, and buried for later in closets. The seasons in movies are all simulated digitally these days, and so I like to think these surprisingly intricate yellow and orange facsimiles are more than just personal artifacts.
Here’s the weird part though: there actually was a little bookstore in that scenic location a couple of years before the cheese and antiques called it home, then sometime around when the movie came out, a very real retail behemoth did actually open three blocks away, where the post office had been. Life imitated art, though it was hardly so self-evident in the moment that you could hope to identify a lesson, much less apply it.
We lost something in the transaction, but it took too many changing of the seasons – real ones – to know exactly what, and even then was that mostly nostalgia? The children’s section of our Barnes & Noble proved welcoming, many of the staff knew (or learned) their inventory, and it was always, reliably open. Nobody was getting in your face to go buy stuff you didn’t need. (“Will there be anything else for you?” being a motto for our times.) You could sit there, or lie there, as long as you liked. You could bring your dog. Things were a little cheaper than they had been also, and the selection was certainly wider, almost too wide really, if you had one or two children in tow (and a dog), and what were half these books?
Crap – at least half of them of were – but you trained your eyes eventually, and they became easy enough to skip over because – look! There’s Solomon the Rusty Nail, but there’s also a bunch of other stuff by that author whose name you sort of recognize from New Yorker cartoons. There’s Garmann’s Summer! Chicken Soup, Boots! Mr. Lunch – what’s that famous bird chasing professional up to now? The Adventures of the Dish and the Spoon! Ugly Fish! (Woops. Okay.) There’s - well, too many to list here, but a sampling appears above right. I guard these memories fiercely of the best, the simplest and most rewarding years of my life (no caveat here), and Barnes & Noble was the not unworthy backdrop for many precious highlights.
So please excuse some of the emotion that comes with discovering a couple of weeks ago that the New Arrivals table on the ground floor which had previously been reserved to feature children’s picture books was instead precipitously stacked with Star Wars Lego and Leapfrog Leapsters (“Your child’s first computer!”). As they had not changed the New Arrivals sign, I wondered if this was a temporary arrangement, but of course, it turned out, it was not, and I shuddered, got a little misty-eyed, a little panicky – probably all of the stages of denial and finally acceptance of this tipping point, conspicuous as it was. I even blubbered about it a little to the salespeople as they went and fetched treats for my dog.
For - let’s say – two years now, it has become increasingly difficult not to recognize an inexorable, possibly terminal trend in every incremental hedge. “They sell,” shrugged one of those salespeople about that heap of gaudy plastic where books used to be. “Something needs to pay for our salaries.” Fine, but it’s a pretty short plank between “We’re not just a bookstore!” to “A closer, more expensive Wal-Mart!” This sort of fecklessness is nowhere more glaring than in the children’s section (I’m not even sure we can call it a children’s book section anymore), where a marked-down profusion of lunchboxes and card tricks and American Girl activity centers and, well, anything with Jack Sparrow’s likeness branded onto it, looks like it is spilling from a twenty-year-old piñata. You will not find another Garmann in this gusher. An incredibly shrinking paperback selection still contains the odd surprising little masterpiece, but of course these are generally classics which some other generation was responsible for shepherding toward the mainstream.
And we? What will this generation leave behind that is not already cut and pasted from the TV, and shouldn’t we just wait for the app? Least that way the glitter won’t come flaking off in our eyes.
Good books, or bad: I’ll miss that big old haystack when it’s gone,
and maybe someone will even make a movie that helps it look more romantic than it ever really was. They’re underdogs now, still it’s hard
to feel very optimistic about a business that doesn’t seem optimistic