When I was a student, I browsed though bookstores in awe at the world revealing itself to me within those walls. Two days ago, on the escalators at the Barnes and Noble bookstore in Union Square, New York, I was hit by the terrible sense of finality that comes with visiting a place for what might very well be the last time. I made it a point to visit all four floors of the bookstore, café and magazine racks included, because I thought: I may never see a four-floor bookstore again. The next time I am in New York, there may very well be a clothing store here. And any other bookstore with four floors I may encounter in my travels is doomed. I am sorry but I want to be factual: the large cathedral of the non-specialized bookstore is over.
The writing has been on the walls, of course, for years. I have browsed through many fewer bookstores since Jeff Bezos started international shipping. I have watched museum bookstores convert into design and gift stores. Even airport bookstores, once the refuge of the bored traveler, have become much less necessary. It obviously isn’t true yet, but the other day at Barnes and Noble’s I felt like I could choose any book on any of the four floors and have it downloaded onto one of the devices in my backpack in less than fifteen seconds. (I also felt tempted to add a Nook to my gadget collection, but didn’t. I left the store without making any purchases.)
It is pointless to bemoan the disappearance of the trusted bookseller, supplanted by the faceless algorithm. It is just a fact. The other day, as I prepared to leave the store, I felt as if I were standing in an emptied house that I knew I was never going to return to. Or kissing a loved one for the last time.