What happens to serendipity in a world without bookstores?

Remaindered reads - this is a good one. Arts and Entertainments by Christopher Beha is a sendup of the highly scripted world of reality TV #books #reading #fiction

What happens to serendipity in a world without bookstores?

The Barnes and Noble in Bethesda is closing. The last of the great literary superstores, it anchors downtown Bethesda, MD, providing a focus to the community and a convenient rest stop on the Capital Crescent Trail.

Books used to be big business. Downtown DC had several stores much like the leftover Barnes and Noble, from the sprawling Borders on L Street to the bustling Waldenbooks in Union Station. All gone now.

The margins are better in clothing. Most of the book stores now sell cheap frocks from China.

I’ll miss shopping at Barnes and Noble for the same reason that I miss reading the newspaper – serendipity. Online shopping is task-oriented – you know what you want and you search for it. Browsing in a good bookstore is about exploration. It’s about luck. It’s about stumbling upon the right book at the right time.

I had a gift card with $5 left on it. I didn’t know what I wanted, so I ended up in the remaindered section of the Bethesda Barnes and Noble, searching through the stacks of marked-down books at the front of the store.

I didn’t care for the cover of Arts & Entertainments but read the blurbs and the first couple pages and was sold. At $4.98.

This funny New York novel by Christopher Beha asks, “How real is reality TV?” The answer: not very. Like with scripted programs, reality characters have arcs – narratives imposed upon them by producers. We like pantomime villains and high drama so that’s what reality TV gives us, whether it’s true or not.

And once you join the reality world, it’s impossible to get out, for you become addicted to fame and money. The only escape is death and, even then, your demise will be used to anchor another story, another narrative arc, another turn of the wheel, your complex existence reduced to a single stereotype, whether that’s hero or heel.

I was thinking of doing a blog series on remaindered books, panning for gold among these leftover titles.

But, like the last Barnes and Noble, even these remnants of the publishing industry are soon to be no more.

People still read – 73% of adults read a book in the last year, most of them in print.

Bethesda will survive the loss of Barnes and Noble. In cities like Washington, we have other options, independent booksellers like Kramerbooks.

But, in most of the country, Barnes and Noble was the only bookstore in town. And it did more than just sell books, too, but provided a safe space for reading groups, online dates and Craigslist transactions. It’s a loss to the community.

No more will readers have the experience of aimless browsing, of searching through stacks of discounted books looking for something you can’t describe until you pull a black comedy out of the pile. The end of Barnes and Noble means the end of serendipity.

In a country enthralled by reality TV, Barnes and Noble is no longer needed. But what about all those remaindered books? Where will they go? To the great pulp mill, destined for recycling as flimsy wrapping paper, their contents unread.


3 thoughts on “What happens to serendipity in a world without bookstores?

  1. I sympathise with what you say: I used to enjoy browsing for the heck of seeing what’s out there, and occasionally for the heck of finding a gem or two.

    You can still do that in second-hand shops or on market stalls in certain places around the world … But! But you can also do that online. Shopping online is goal-oriented, yes, but it doesn’t have to be. In fact, I end up with dozens of browser tabs open after I’ve clicked on every single ‘recommended’ book under the one I was searching for. Click on enough of these recommended links and you can reach pretty much any online book out there. Granted, it’s not random (indeed, it’s very self-selecting), but there are yet other ways. I read blog posts by people I don’t know, I read Wikipedia articles to find out who influenced the authors mentioned, I follow up on quote sources in books. You’d be surprised how varied a list this renders, eventually (and I truly mean across fiction/nonfiction, genre and literary, era, topic, form). I just wish I had more time!

    1. Sounds like you have a good system for finding books! A friend of mine also pointed out that serendipity can also be found in your local library. There you can find books you might otherwise not discover. I do love the bookstore experience, however, and would rather see a Barnes & Noble than a Nordstrom Rack. But I guess there’s not enough of people like me to go around.


      1. In your local library or at a friend’s house 🙂

        Yes, you’re right, libraries are treasure troves, and have a large advantage over bookstores: you can take out the books for free, sample, and return unread if not to your liking. That reminds me: my largest issue with bookstores these days is that I’m easily drawn to a pretty cover, or a fun-looking blurb, but I still end up going online to check the reviews. Life’s not long enough to read everything that catches my fancy, and I’m not rich enough to buy books I won’t end up reading at some point …

        Still, always a shame to see bookstores closing (and libraries): they’re the temples of the written word. Nothing online feels as holy.

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