Kepler’s Books in Menlo Park closed last week. It’s vaguely possible that it will reopen – a lot of people miss it – but I won’t count on it. This is sad. Not that I went there all the time or anything, but I suppose I would have a decade ago if I’d been living in the area. That difference being, presumably, is why it closed.
The conventional explanation is that it was done in by the one-two punch of Border’s and Amazon; I assume the conventional explanation is correct. A decade ago, there was a lot of talk about how the evil Border’s and Barnes and Noble were putting stores out of business. And, to be honest, I had no patience with those arguments. I believed that bookstores were going out of business – the number of bookstores in Harvard Square probably dropped by half at about that time. (Not that I quite understand the cause and effect there, since no Borders plunked itself down there; it was probably just a part of the gentrification of Harvard Square.) But I didn’t believe that having those bookstores replaced by a Borders was a bad thing.
Lots of the complaints were of the form “having bookstores disappear and be replaced by Border’s will limit your choice”. Which looked to me like baloney; the bookstores that I saw disappearing were the indifferent smallish non-specialist bookstores, so the only choice that I was losing was the choice of ten stores to get the same bestsellers from. The Borders that opened up in downtown Boston at about that time probably had five times the number of different titles available than all of the disappearing Harvard Square bookstores put together. And Borders always treats me like a potential purchaser instead of a potential thief.
And the good bookstores in Harvard Square stayed open: general ones (Wordsworth, the Harvard Book Store), specialist ones (Pandemonium, the incredibly customer-hostile Grolier, though I assume the latter is financed as a sort of hobby). And the Harvard Coop during that time went from a slightly larger indifferent quality bookstore to one that was quite striking both in terms of its selection and in terms of its architecture. They hired Barnes and Noble to manage it; in general, I don’t like Barnes and Noble, and there was a whiff of that taint in the new Coop, but only a whiff. (As far as architecture goes, I have to say that I like the basic Border’s two story with huge staircase/balcony architecture, even if it does feel a bit repetitive at times. Sure, the library stacks denizen in me would like two stories crammed full of books without a huge open space in the middle, but there’s something nice about the cathedral of books associations that the more open architecture gives.)
My coworkers will laugh at this, but it actually took me a while to accept the second punch, Amazon. Don’t get me wrong: being able to order any book you want is a godsend. But I’ve been special ordering books for two decades (I must have spent more time leafing through Books in Print than almost any teenager in the country), so this wasn’t a new concept for me. (It didn’t help that Amazon was charging extra for some of the more esoteric books.) But after a few years, I realized that it was a waste of my time for me to go into a bookstore with a list of fifteen books to special order, to have to read all the names to a clerk (Delany, D E L A N Y, no, no E, just N Y. Tales of Neveryon. N E V E R Y O N. Right. Same author: Straits of Messina. S T R A I … yeah. M E S S I N A. No, I’m not done yet. Is Babel 17 in print? B A B E L, like the tower. Oh well, too bad), all the time considering myself lucky if the clerk would at least tilt the computer’s screen so I can see the misspellings. Much much better for me to be the one sitting at a computer typing.
When I moved out here, I did about half my book buying on Amazon and half at bookstores, both in infrequent large purchases. Since then, my purchases have gotten smaller (and it’s been a couple of years since I’ve done a large single purchase at a physical bookstore), and a lot of my purchases in physical book stores have been at specialty stores or in general purpose book stores that are particularly good at some specialty. For example, the Sunnyvale Border’s has a particularly good computer selection, surprise surprise. (For that matter, their comics selection isn’t half bad, either.)
And Kepler’s ended up getting left out. It’s a bit far away for me to drop in randomly: now that I’ve stopped going to the go club, I almost never end up randomly in Menlo Park. I often went to Kepler’s when looking for a birthday present and don’t have any specific ideas, but even there Amazon is doing increasingly well for me, and of course saves me from having to deal with shipping. And they didn’t have a cafe, which doesn’t matter to me but seems to be the trendy but effective way for bookstores to improve their profit margins.
So I can see why it closed. And its closing won’t have much of a concrete effect on me. But I still miss it.
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