So Borders is on the verge of being liquidated.  This has sparked some interesting conversations on a School of Information listserv I belong to, discussing the pros and cons of not only chain book stores vs. mom and pop shops, but the ebook vs. its old paper predecessor.

Full disclosure: I used to work at a Borders Outlet.  I prefer the tangibility of real paper books; in fact, I collect them.  But I think ebooks have their place (especially in terms of storage space!).  I think the demise of book stores is a horrible mistake.

But, why did this happen?  There may be a casual chain of events here, and I’ll lay it out as I see it (I haven’t done the research on this, so this is very much a gut-reaction).

First, there were the mom and pop stores.  They were cool, had character, and performed a great service in their neighborhoods.  But you probably didn’t get much of a discount. With no other options, c’est la vie.

Then some corporations wanted to get in on the action, and with the blessings of publishers, were able to distribute their books to a wider audience.  Due to mass production and carrying such a large stock, these chain stores were able to offer discounts and carry more titles than the mom and pop stores.  So, slowly, the chains pushed out the little guys because people do like buying things at a discount.  A few used book stores hung on (since this is really a form of discount store), but they were far and few between, and dependent on a local culture that provided enough demand to justify their existence.

Then the Internet exploded and Amazon began slapping retailers around with even better discounts and a potentially unlimited inventory.  And you could get it shipped right to your house; convenient, no?  Chain stores offered more discounts to be competitive, but continue to struggle.

Then the ebook and ereaders were created and those paper books become a series of 1’s and 0’s that could fit a whole library in a thing the size of a paperback.  And it allowed you to make notes, highlight, etc., just like a real book (and even some functionality like keyword searches that the old paper predecessors did not).  The ebooks gained popularity for this convenience and their price—people were not willing to pay much for a digital copy.

Then the publishers decided that they should be able to charge near (or more) the same amount for the old paper books.  They sued, and won.  So now people get to pay a higher price for those 1’s and 0’s.  And with handheld devices becoming ubiquitous, fewer people see the need for paper books, let alone their brick and mortar stores.

So here we arrive with one of the largest booksellers liquidating and another struggling to survive.  For those who live in the digital world, these losses are no big deal.  They probably feel they get the same experience of serendipitous discovery in a book store from their recommender systems online.  But bookstores also provided more than books. There a communal gathering place (for some), where book groups can get together.  Where authors can come and talk about their works.  Where kids can frolic in their kid section or hear stories during reading times.

Some think that the liquidation of big chains may make room for the small mom and pop shops to come back.  With Amazon and ebook readership on the rise, don’t hold your breath.

But I can’t help wondering if this points to larger trends at work.  (Yes, I’m aware there were management problems and some poor inventory-control issues, but that wound up mattering more in the face of these larger trends).  In a world where the digital age is supposed to make us more connected, many people isolate themselves from others.  “Social networking” is not the same as actual social interaction.  And our attention span continues to diminish; I’d dare say we’re down to 140 characters (the maximum length of a tweet).  Why else would even our lawmakers begin using Twitter to communicate with their constituents? Sure digital innovations have made our life more convenient (and in some cases, even better—GPS), but digital for digital’s sake isn’t necessarily a good thing.

Maybe it’s a sign that consumers are fed up with the mark up on mass produced items.  It happened to the music industry; other media formats can’t be far behind as evidenced by the trend to ebooks.  This is one trend that I have some sympathy for, especially if the artists themselves are advocating for it.  The greed and bottom-line tactics of big corporate producers and publishers could only push so far before there was some serious push-back (enabled by technological innovation).

In the end though, I think the general dwindling of paper books in favor of eformat is a sad thing. It seems to point to an “instant gratification” trend that doesn’t seem to coincide with sitting down and soaking in a good book.  Having supervised and observed many students of this generation, there does seem to be a certain lack of focus or attention on anything that lasts more than 10 minutes.  If this sounds like an old curmudgeon complaining about these young whippersnappers, so be it—that doesn’t necessarily make it inaccurate.

Then again, this is all just my gut reaction and I could totally be pulling this out of thin air, and yet these trends just feel wrong.