A eulogy: Goodbye to Chinook and Borders

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It was a sad day when Chinook closed its doors in 2004.

Since 1959, it was a fixture on North Tejon Street, with Dick and Judy Noyes and their staff taking care of us. They knew the classics and the latest trends; they knew our family; they had a play area for kids and book signing parties (full disclosure: I had a book signing there). They were part of the landscape, and they added a cultural gravitas to our downtown.

When they closed, people assumed that the “chains” killed them, coming into town with discounted prices, national marketing budgets and buying power an independent bookstore couldn’t match. It’s all economies of scale, not an emotional plea for the survival of the unfit. Unfit?

As national press releases tell us, “Borders, an Ann Arbor, Michigan-based chain that pioneered the big-box bookselling concept and grew to 1,249 stores at its peak in 2003, will cease to exist by the end of the day on Sunday, Sept. 18, 2011.” Perhaps not that fit, after all. Even though it started in 1971 and diversified into other chains and Internet sales, it still filed for bankruptcy protection last February.

I used to go to the one at Broadmoor Towne Center, where the staff was cordial when I asked them to gift-wrap yet another book. What else can you get 2-year old Sunny Lee or Liz who just graduated from Beth-El Nursing School? There is nothing else that compares to a book you can inscribe or carry with you on a plane ride. A certain intimacy, not a Luddite throwback, accompanies every book we read.

Yes, we have Kindle and downloadable books; yes, we have birthday cards we can digitally send; heck, they send themselves once you set the dates in the program. But does it have the same personal touch as a hand-written card? Have we digitalized our personality out of the message? Are we afraid to remain too human in a virtual world?

Even Borders, as a big-box chain, offered a public space for coffee drinkers and wireless consumers. It offered a place to meet and talk and read. Not quite a library, not really a living room or park, it still provided a space for the community, a place that felt safe and real, where people met to read and talk.

What will replace this big-box store? The biggest retail expansion in America is in the “dollar” stores category, such as Family Dollar and Dollar Tree, both of which can be found at Uintah Gardens. Is it because of The Great Recession? Perhaps we are just cheap; perhaps we stopped reading at middle-school. It might be that literacy is taken for granted, like breathing, and just as we need a Yogi to teach us to breathe properly, we may need someone to nurture the love of reading.

Postmodernism teaches about displacement as a substitute for replacement. When we replace, we erase what has come before and put in its place a new version, one that overshadows whatever the previous one offered. This is true about the car replacing the horse and buggy or gas furnaces replacing coal ones in private homes.

When we displace, by contrast, we leave in place whatever came before, because the old can coexist with the new. Though airplanes may be preferred, trains are still around. Though the Internet is commercially dominant, we still go to boutiques to shop. Such coexistence doesn’t take away from the intrinsic value of both commercial venues.

So, why think that independent bookstores must be replaced by big-box stores that will inevitably be replaced by Internet sites, like Amazon? Why can’t they all co-exist? Why can’t Chinook stay in place along Borders and Amazon? Is it really about “market-forces” or our own short-sightedness?

Have we forgotten that sales taxes are paid for and spent locally, while Internet sales avoid charging them altogether? Local sales taxes fund basic public services, such as libraries and parks. As we mourn the loss of sales tax and jobs, we should think about reviving such public treasures as the local bookstores with coffee shops.

President Obama wants to tax millionaires; his opponents dream of a market with no taxes; both in the name of jobs creation. The Bush and Obama administrations set up TARP to bail out Detroit car manufacturers to save jobs; would they have bailed out Chinook and Borders to save jobs? Perhaps steel and rubber are more macho than books; perhaps driving is more thrilling than reading. But when we look for the next Einstein, it would be wise to inspire her by a book, not a joy-ride…

Raphael Sassower is professor of philosophy at UCCS and writes books nobody reads. He can be reached at rsassower@gmail.com Previous articles can be found at sassower.blogspot.com