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Somebody Loves You, Barnes & Noble

Picture an egg-headed, middle-aged man getting up every morning for his job at the shoelace factory, where he eats the same cheese and mustard sandwich every lunch in the break room. One day, however, a mysterious heart-shaped package arrives in the mail….

Oh, never mind. I was going to write today about the subtle charms and enduring relevance of Somebody Loves You, Mr. Hatch, but the Barnes & Noble in my neighborhood closed its doors for the final time yesterday evening at 8, and it seems negligent, even churlish, not to acknowledge this passing. Here is an institution that was plainly the source of much personal joy and enlightenment and, yes, some exasperation since the first of my children was born fourteen years ago. We stopped in Friday looking for calendars that we did not get for Christmas, but the shelves were already apocalyptically empty – only a couple things left featuring those beautiful young actors from the Twilight movies, plus one with Sarah Palin, which pretty much sums up where all this was heading long before the listing retail behemoth decided not to renew its lease. They had five whole floors – too much space it seemed recently to fill up with books – and otherwise too openly paraded their identity crisis for anyone else to feel very good about their product either.

But enough: I’ve grumbled about this extravagantly elsewhere, and now all I feel is a gaping and undeniable sense of loss.

In many ways this is nostalgia perhaps, in many ways plain old delusion. Right up until the final traumatic announcement back in November, I stayed slavishly hopeful about this particular Barnes & Noble (even the name for me now still hums with positive vibrations) that it might yet reclaim – or remember or recalibrate - whatever it was that made it so vital at its beginning.

Millions – yes, millions! - of people take some precious scrap of memory away from between those walls and zagging escalators. For me, it was a place to discover any number of unusual children’s books (here are some of them stacked in no order), but also the whole species of picture books generally. Really, how many books does anyone actually remember from their own childhoods? Maybe eight? Maybe twelve? 

And these? These were often much better, amazingly. Wiser and wilder, not afraid to take risks.

Reading to my children? A salvation.

Getting the heck out of the house? I swear I’d probably be sitting here singing the praises of puppet shows if one were three blocks from our apartment.

Today, and tomorrow, and the next day, we can easily walk the extra half mile to 82nd Street, but I’d be lying if I said I did not worry this will require a little more deciding than impulsively heading out. All of the stuff you can find when you’re not looking for it is conceivably what falls through these cracks.

And what does it say that here in the earliest hours of 2011, right smack in the middle of the cultural universe, you cannot seek and touch and buy a book without first considering the cost of public transportation? I don’t know. Chances are most of you are probably better suited at decoding the zeitgeist than I am (look at me! I run a bookstore!) so I welcome any explanations.

But I think it’s worth asking: if it’s not going to be books that we talk about, and listen to, and crowd around (and, alas, it’s not going to be puppets), then what are our remaining brick-and-mortar diversions that do not risk digital extinction? Imagine the world without cinemas to wait on line in. No theater, no live music fogging up your ears. Friends you hardly have to talk to, or answer. The guy at the deli you never have to pretend to understand. Everything delivered to your door. Imagine the convenience. Imagine all the lonely people.


1Posted by: .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) on 01/07

Just tonight I walked past the same empty shelves—the lights were still on inside the store—and, though I could never describe it as accurately or beautifully as you do, Jay Bushara, I think I feel the same sense of loss. I never would have thought of that particular B&N as a “listing behemoth” (in fact I had to look back to your text even to figure out how to spell behemoth!), but that is just a perfect analogy, especially given the many ways to understand “listing.” Thank you, Jay, for writing this. I’ll meet you any day for a good long talk about books and zeitgeist and enlightenment and more books.
—an appreciative fellow reader and neighbor

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