Those remembering Father George Hunt wrote movingly of his literary interests, and former Baseball Commissioner Fay Vincent's story of Father Hunt scouring used bookstores for that hidden book gem brought a smile to my face and I'm sure to many other readers as well. I'm certain that a shared characteristic of readers of America Magazine is a love of books. (Yes, there's even a long-time Catholic book club affiliated with the magazine.) Appearing in the midst of news on Egypt, Libya, Pirates on the High Seas, or Protests in Madison, Wisconsin was the story that Borders, the large bookstore chain, was going bankrupt. Although some stores would remain open, the newspapers stated, many more would be closing. As I've spent hundreds of hours in Borders stores, and those of another retailer like it, sadness hit my heart before my eyes could even stumble to the story's first sentence. Bookstores have been closing aplenty for two decades, winking out like fireflies at dawn, and too-frequently going unnoticed.
When I moved to New York three decades ago, the realization that I lived a train ride away from a great city was almost secondary to being bedazzled by being able to commute to a city of great bookstores. The Strand quickly became a favorite--if you couldn't carry everything back they would pack the books in sturdy boxes and have them shipped to you, saving you the back-breaking work of dragging them through Grand Central Terminal. The perfect Saturday or weekly day off was a walk up Fifth Avenue and into the wrought-iron sanctuary of Scribners, or up to the second floor at Doubleday where one could peruse the paperbacks and look down on Fifth Avenue at the same time, wondering if Jacqueline Onassis might pass by, absorbed in her editorial duties. If there was time, a hop on the subway and down to Union Square--up an elevator to the fourth floor (what a weird place for a bookstore), and there was Bruner/Mazel with a trove of first-rate professional books on psychology. In sports terms--the perfect trifecta, hat trick, or even home run with runners on first and second.
At a young age I became one of those lucky persons to have a manuscript accepted over-the-transom--literary lingo for an unsolicited manuscript proposal. While working at an inner-city day treatment center, I sent an idea for a book on how to do crisis counseling with these children. Against all odds the proposal ended up in the hands of Michael Leach, formerly the director of a center for similarly troubled children. Mike not only liked this book but signed me up for three other books as well, and for over six years I served under his mentorship as a General Editor for a 25-volume series on counseling, attending conferences and working with authors who crafted their individual volumes in line with the overall goals of a coherent series. Soon, Mike's story of his singular career in publishing will be out for all to read and enjoy.
Now many Borders stores will go the way of these other places I used to eagerly visit. After that brief surge of sadness passes, there should be time to assess the impact Borders and that other chain have had on book publishing; it has not been all for the best. In two decades many small neighborhood bookstores and small to medium publishers were forced to close because the rules of the publishing ballgame changed. Instead of skilled editors who loved their work selecting books of combined literary and commercial value (or sometimes a good book that wouldn't sell but was worth publishing on its literary merit alone), marketing directors at the bookstore chains would tell the publishers what kind of book they wanted to order, how it should be written, and how many pages it would be. Diversity in kinds of books you can buy in bookstores has suffered. Best-sellers are that way from the start because of money paid to display them at the front of the store--not from a groundswell of demand from reviewers to selective book buyers. Over-the-transom acceptances like mine just don't happen anymore--a great loss for unpublished young people who yearn to write.
At least one article I read suggested that perhaps small bookstores would rise again. I don't know--that seemed an overly hopeful, but readily welcomed sentiment. Small publishers have learned to eke out a place in the literary world, often by specialization and a large back list of books that is made possible by the on-demand publishing technology. Books coded in electronic format can be rapidly printed with laser technology printers; instead of a warehouse down by the docks to store thousands of books, all that is needed is a small server. One publisher who has changed with the times is my friend and colleague Gene Gollogly whose Lantern Books specialize in spirituality, nonviolence and psychology as well as issues related to nourishing food and cherishing of animal life. Lantern's website not only lists the books but has info on authors, upcoming events, and different blogs--even one that links to monasticism. Perhaps as one big player in publishing diminishes or disappears, more room will open up for Gene and other publishers like him.
Many lament the changes in the book industry, of which this Borders bankruptcy is just the latest, but with sadness there often come a choice: one can brood and resent that those good old days are gone forever or one can look forward to unexpected new discoveries and developments. Still, old friends who have left our lives or this Earth are hard to replace and sometimes can't be, even though our new connections would seem to offer similar nourishment and reward.
William Van Ornum