Beyond Borders

This past fall I learned how the first horse to meet a horseless carriage must have felt as it clattered past him. The students showed up for my contemporary novel course at John Carroll University, books in hand.
All of them, that is, except Kristen, who as far as I could tell had nothing on her desk.

"Couldn't you find a copy of White Teeth?" I asked.

She lifted from her desk a sliver of glass and plastic. "Yes," she said. "I just, like, downloaded it onto my iPad."

And I felt the earth tilt under my feet. Because I knew that if one student downloaded her e-book this term, 10 would do it next term. A year from now they'd all be sitting in front of me with their glowing screens, staring with pity at the old guy shuffling through his primitive pages.

Yes, the e-book has landed. If you doubted this, just look at the recent apocalyptic events in the comic strip Mary Worth. In Mary's antediluvian universe, nothing ever changes. Yet her friend Jeff showed up the other day with a "reading device." It's so easy to use, he announced to a plainly skeptical Mary.

In Cleveland, the digital age trumpeted its arrival this past fall with the closings of three big-box bookstores. First the Richmond Town Square Barnes & Noble went down. Then the Borders at Severance Town Center. And then, with a whimper, the Joseph-Beth at Legacy Village. In mid-February, Borders declared bankruptcy and announced it'll close hundreds of stores nationwide.

Clearly, the digital writing is on the wall: The days when you could drift through acres of books, sipping a latte and parking yourself with a magazine in an overstuffed chair near the gas log fireplace, are coming to an end.

Naturally, all these closings sent me off on an elegiac rant having vaguely to do with the end of civilization as we know it. I loved wandering through Joseph-Beth on summer evenings, chatting with fellow members of my bookish tribe, now and then spotting local writers such as Sarah Willis or Les Roberts or Mary Doria Russell among the stacks.

But "reading devices" and online buying weren't the only factors in the fall of the big box, says Amy Rosenfield, erstwhile fiction buyer for Joseph-Beth.

"The overhead at the big-box stores was enormous," she told me recently. "Unsustainable. Plus, there was all this space, and unless you had huge piles of books everywhere, the stores looked empty. So you'd have to overbuy books to make the place look busy then send all the unsold copies back to the distributor, which cost a fortune."

This meant that the big-box stores had to raise prices, which, of course, was great for the online book trade. Add to that the fact that the online sellers are basically exempt from sales taxes, and you can kiss your lattes and fireplaces goodbye.

But the e-book isn't for everybody. "I like the way a real book feels," Mary Worth says to Jeff, handing back his nice new gizmo.

Suzanne DeGaetano, owner of Mac's Backs in Coventry, feels the same way. "Those of us who really care about books don't want to hold a piece of plastic in our hands," she told me. "We take pleasure in actually turning the pages." She's echoing the affection most boomers feel for this increasingly quaint concoction of paper, ink and glue.

But not so fast. "Quaint?" repeated Dave Ferrante indignantly. We were sitting at the wine bar of Visible Voice, Ferrante's cozy little independent bookstore in Tremont. "Are you kidding me?" He held up a copy of Jonathan Franzen's Freedom. "The book is a technology that's been perfected over centuries. It doesn't break if you drop it. It doesn't need batteries. And anyone can get one for free from the public library. So don't tell me about 'quaint.' "

Indie bookstores have reason for hope. Now that the behemoths are falling, locally owned brick-and-mortar stores are stepping up to fill the vacuum. According to the American Booksellers Association, 26 new bookstores opened around the country last year. Membership in the ABA is on the rise.

"People need a place to come together," Ferrante says. "That's not going away. The way we read books might be changing, but we'll always want to get together and talk about what we're reading."

True, you may have trouble finding 600 copies of the latest James Patterson at shops such as Mac's Backs, Visible Voice, Appletree in Cleveland Heights or Loganberry near Shaker Square. All the easier to find something actually worth reading. Besides, as Rosenfield asks, "How many forests will the e-book save from Harry Potter?"

I'll see you at the wine bar.

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