Since hearing of the recent closing of our local bookstore and cafe, Borders, I've had little else on my mind but books and the societies they make and how rapidly and radically these are changing. I remember coming upon my first Borders in 1988 in Stamford, Connecticut. For a while I walked around the spacious store, my jaw dropped, unbelieving in the rarity of a cafe bar and books together. The barista actually invited me to pick up a book, grab a cafe and sit and read while drinking. Under a kind of magical spell, I returned over and over again to that nook to write and read to my heart's content. I was an adjunct teaching creative writing at a local university then and had time on my hands to do such wondrous things. Once, while sipping on capuccinos, I sat and read all of Gloria Naylor's The Women of Brewster Place. Another time, perhaps inspired by a unique blend of twisted thoughts eeking out of the corners of books and shelves at that Borders, I sat and wrote a 26-page story called "Oliviana," about an affair between a gay man and a transsexual. I loved the characters in that story, which, in my view, pushed boundaries, my own and those of convention.
A good bookstore inspires fresh thoughts no less than good literature and company. But Borders, at least the one in Fort Lee, New Jersey, the town in which I now live, will no longer be working its magic on its residents and neighbors, as it is closing. Book sales have drawn more people to buy up its remains in recent days than perhaps anything else has in a decade. There were the days of course when readings and concerts at Borders drew crowds, but those went up in smoke along with the economy.
The same week I heard the bad news about our Borders closing, I heard that Buffalo Books, formerly known as The Bookery, where I worked part-time for a couple of years while teaching in and around Ithaca, New York, was also closing. The good news is that the community has taken up the cause and will more than likely save the place through some kind of cooperative enterprise. It's good news when people band together when the powers that be try to prevent growth and opportunity. Americans are good like that, and bands of them fighting good causes like that one around the country have inspired me lately. I know Ithaca has the mind and heart and guts it takes to keep a place it wants to thrive, alive. I hope books and literature remain part of its tradition for years to come.
Bookstore cafes have become an American tradition. But the bar of the 90s, where human beings imbibing non-alcoholic drinks mingled in the company of books and each other are now being replaced by virtual cafes and Amazon.com, and perhaps another growing trend -- book clubs. When I expressed my concern to a fellow editor at Pearson Education about the society of books going down the tubes, she was quick to mention book clubs and how fast they are multiplying.
Little societies can have great impact, as long as they keep growing, and as long as they remain open venues for increased participation. Otherwise, they are just perpetrating an elitist cycle, keeping both knowledge and enthusiasm about it away from those who potentially need it most.
In the wake of the bookstore closings I just mentioned, I want not only to launch a book club, but an all-night cafe where insomniac readers, writers and artists of every variety can join in the spirit of non-conformity to talk about their art and experiment with it. While Kelly performs jazz, and Diana paints pictures, and Doug recites his poems, and Donna videotapes it all, I will serve espressos and green tea and Renee's vegan muffins. We will play and grow together. Then, just as the rest of the world comes alive, as the sun shines its full face on our streets and windows, we will close our doors and return once more to the enterprise of dreaming.