In my early years, public libraries were special places for me. There I found frequent refuge from a less than welcoming world, while exploring - through the blessing of books - a more interesting and expansive one. As years passed (and turned into decades), bookstores replaced libraries for me as that special sort of sanctuary. In the 90s, I regularly walked the mile or so to Barnes & Noble at Broadway & 82nd Street. Then, for 10 happy years after moving back to Manhattan, I had access to a closer and bigger branch, augmented by an even closer Borders Bookstore at Columbus Circle. Both of which, however, have long since been closed. So today I schlepped (not by foot this time, but by bus) back up to the 82nd Street Barnes & Noble, the only such bookstore left on the Upper West Side.
What does it mean that bookstores are dying off - not just here in Manhattan but all over the country? Nor are big chains the only ones so imperiled. The same fate has befallen so many big and small independent bookstores, both urban neighborhood and small town treasures alike. Such is progress - the "creative destruction" of a capitalist economy. The publishing industry - specifically the economics of the publishing industry - continue to change. And who can say what will be in 5 years, 10 years, 50 years? What kinds of books (real books, e-books) will exist? Will reading still liberate us?
I have no insights into the economics of publishing. I can only comment on what we all observe - the growing vacancy in our culture. As I skimmed several books today - books I had not heard of or read reviews of and might never have encountered had I not had a place to browse, I reflected on how much less that happens on line, where one is more likely to be looking for something specific and being pointed in particular directions. And then, of course, there is the whole community gathering place, local hang-out role that traditional stores perform in so many neighborhoods and towns.
For now at least, it was a quiet but still glorious Fourth, surrounded by an abundance of books and a community of urban book-lovers.