"Kissing" Books Could Have Saved Borders - 7/24/2011

First published in Huffington Post

In his essay, "Is Nothing Sacred?" novelist Salman Rushdie examines the importance of literature in society, laments the state of fiction (he penned it during the nuclear fallout from his own novel), and recalls his early relationship with books.
"I grew up kissing books and bread," he begins. An enchanting sentence that guaranteed my attention.

"In our house," Mr. Rushdie wrote, "whenever anyone dropped a book or let fall... a 'slice,' which was our word for a triangle of buttered leavened bread, the fallen object was required not only to be picked up but also kissed, by way of apology for the act of clumsy disrespect. I was as careless and butter-fingered as any child and, accordingly, during my childhood years, I kissed a large number of 'slices' and also my fair share of books. Devout households in India often contained, and still contain, persons in the habit of kissing holy books. But we kissed everything. We kissed dictionaries and atlases. We kissed Enid Blyton novels and Superman comics. If I'd ever dropped the telephone directory I'd probably have kissed that, too."

I read the essay while living in London, and felt great sympathy for Mr. Rushdie who was at the time living incognito. I marveled at his stubborn faith in literature that was giving him nothing but grief at that time. And I was consoled that there were other people living in England who grew up kissing books too. Though in my own family, we kissed only the books my father took seriously and that formed our reading list: philosophy, religion, science, and the writings of politicians, inventors, entrepreneurs, scientists, and dissidents around the world. We did not, I recall, kiss novels, which may explain why I felt compelled to write one later in life. My father's reading legacy must have left a mark on me, in any case, since politics, religion, colonialism, war, and imprisonment were narrative threads in my first novel.

Most of the independent American bookstores I frequent now are owned by people who grew up kissing books -- not literally as Mr. Rushdie and I did growing up, but figuratively at least. Like Jungian analysts who ask people they meet, "Did you dream?" I ask everyone I am interested in knowing better, including booksellers, "What are you reading?" With the exception of one owner who said she was diving into something about eating, praying and loving, I always found their reading tastes worth emulating.

In the last few days, as a whole assembly of men wearing suits -- analysts armed with the dullest of forensic tools -- analyze the death of Borders Books, it's become increasingly clear to me that none of them grew up kissing books or understand those who do. They blame book readers, digital books, Amazon, and the recession for the demise of the superstore chain when they should be blaming the executives of Borders.

Some things to bear in mind for companies attempting to fill the Borders-sized hole in the universe in the near future:

Book readers are rarefied, hothouse orchids. Comparing bookstores to Bed, Bath & Beyond, Home Depot, and Linen & Things shows that corporations and business analysts don't know their apostrophes from their elbows.

Book readers are educated and smart. Don't place rubbish and pulp near the door.

Book stores are politics-neutral zones. Placing tomes with screeching titles by partisan hacks and bloviators of every stripe set book buyers blood to boiling and make them want to run out the door.

Book lovers like minimalism. What is a book after all but a whole universe of ideas reduced to its essence? A footprint of a bookstore should be roughly 1/100th the size of an airplane hanger.

Bookstores are where you have conversations with people who are not in the room. Reading is an insular act best done in a tight, cozy environment. Stores as large as football stadiums discourage reading .

Women love fiction, ergo women love bookstores. So why did Borders consign fiction to the bowels or the nether regions of the stores?

If Starbucks can invest in comprehensive training to teach their baristas all about coffee and customer service, why didn't Borders? I once asked a Borders employee for the title Baghdad Burning. She asked me, her eyes glazed with a combination of boredom and stupidity, how Baghdad was spelled. This was during the height of the Iraq War.

Book lovers welcome recommendations for good books they haven't heard of from trusted gatekeepers. While I would give Oprah's picks a second look, I wouldn't care what faceless Borders staff, including the one who didn't know how to spell Baghdad, picked. So why plaster books on the shelves with "Borders Staff Pick" labels? Who are you?

Book lovers want to know what thoughtful public figures are reading. Would it have killed you, Borders, to post a list of President Obama's reading list, or Aleksandar Hemon's, or Fareed Zakaria's, or the summer reading lists of Pulitzer laureates or any smart public figures?

Author readings near the cafe. They have slit their wrists on the page to tell you about their difficult and tormented lives/loves/etc. The psychic damage to writers is multiplied when the soundtrack for their readings is the steaming hiss of the espresso machine and yelled customer orders for non-fat/soy/skinny et al.

The Art of Editing. All shoppers know that the reverence and demand for a displayed item is inversely proportional to the quantity on display. One pair of Christian Louboutins glinting like jewels on a rotating mirrored pedestal provokes desire. Burying the same pair on a rack with dozens of other styles, or in a row with dozens of the same style, creates ennui. Delayed gratification, walking out the door without buying, is easier when you see a dozen copies of a title on the shelf.

Special events and programming. Readers love book events as evidenced by the huge turnouts at book festivals like the Printers Row Book Fair in Chicago or author-specific festivals around the country. Borders' efforts were listless at best.

Supply and Demand. Get publishers to realize that publishing 288,000+ titles a year makes no sense at all, when even the most motivated reader who is employed and can afford to buy books, can only read a book a week.

And what was with the red walls? They made you hungry, but not for books.

When I walk by the shuttered Borders on Michigan Avenue now, Chicago's Gold Coast feels like a desert to me. There are more shops than you can count to meet your every need for clothing the body, but not one to feed your soul in that stretch of Magnificent Mile. Referring to the "privileged arena" of literature in Is Nothing Sacred? Mr. Rushdie wrote, "Wherever in the world the little room of literature has been closed, sooner or later the walls have come tumbling down."
Posted by Gail Vida Hamburg at 08:06


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