A great amenity of the dying bookstore megachains is the square footage devoted to magazines; the typical Borders or Barnes and Noble stocks hundreds of titles, including a whole range of glossy gossip rags, more high-minded literary titles, and hobbyist periodicals. With many small independent bookstores choosing not to carry periodicals and traditional newsstands now rare on most downtown corners, this week’s closure of the Borders chain will result in hundreds fewer outlets for smaller publications, particularly those unlikely to afford distribution in the local grocery or 7-11 store.
The American Conservative is among the smaller magazines that benefitted from a presence at Borders. As TAC contributing editor Michael Brendan Dougherty tweeted earlier this week, responding to the news of the Borders liquidation, “Sad. I discovered the magazine I would eventually work for at a Borders newsstand.”
Michael didn’t say whether he took the opportunity to purchase a copy of the magazine, though — and in my own unscientific observation of the Borders newsstands, there was much discovery and browsing of magazines, but relatively little purchasing. In one Borders location I frequented, the newsstand was immediately adjacent to the coffee counter, and the store’s staff didn’t seem to mind when customers took a stack of unpurchased magazines into the cafe, read for an hour or two, and then returned them to the rack. The store perhaps made a a few nickels selling the customer a cup of coffee. But with Borders becoming like a branch of the public library, it was a business model that seemed doomed to fail.
Some bookstores fought back against the newsstand freeloaders. Some years ago, I visited a downtown branch of Olsson’s, a small DC-area chain, that had installed something resembling a communion rail between the cafe and the printed material; the physical barrier was accompanied by a large sign requiring customers to purchase books or magazines before sitting in the cafe area. Olsson’s later went out of business.
The demise of Borders, and the attendant loss of their large newsstands, is likely to be seen by many as part of the inevitable transition from printed media to the brave new digital frontier. But there is something to be mourned in losing the serendipitous opportunities that a newsstand enables. A physical bazaar of printed material, edited and presented in a way still unmatched by the web or eReader, magazine racks provide a respite from our constant tanning in front of glowing screens as we surf across the blogosphere. Like much of the chattering class, I used to sneer at the soulless quality of the bookstore chains — but when it comes to those long racks of colorful and varied journals, I will miss Borders.