Monday, January 4, 2010

Jersey City – Now a City Without a Bookstore

On January 16th Jersey City will no longer have a bookstore. Well—technically, there’s a Hudson Community College bookstore with limited hours and selection and I imagine St. Peter’s College and Jersey City State—a-hem, I mean Jersey City University—have bookstores, but I've never been to those. I’m not sure if college bookstores count, with their emphasis on text books and sweat shirts. B. Dalton Bookstore at Newport Mall is closing, part of the final phasing out of the B. Dalton brand and chain by the parent company Barnes & Noble. I remember reading that one on 6th avenue by the path station was remaining opened although renamed Barnes & Noble.
I assumed the Jersey City outlet would stay open. I hadn’t read anything about it closing in our local newspapers. I don’t recall seeing any signs in the window during the couple of times I did some Christmas shopping at the Newport Mall, until yesterday, Sunday. I saw the clearance banner. Everything on Sale! 50 percent off. I bought a novel by Jim Harrison—as usual, there were not a lot of titles that appealed to be in the selection. My impression that it was a profitable bookstore was not incorrect. “I don’t think the profitability mattered,” one soon-to-join the ranks of the unemployed employee told me. “Keeping us opened never entered into the company’s plans. They just want B. Dalton gone.”

A while back, at least a decade probably, there was a used book store that opened up on Grove street. It was run an elderly fellow who told me he wanted to spend his retirement running a bookstore. That store lasted a year, maybe. The space has been several establishments since, but right now it is still vacant with a for rent sign. Now that I think about it, I seem to recall a Walden Bookstore in Newport Mall that was still around when I got here in the early 90s. Yes, Jersey City had two bookstores towards the end of the last century. I remember Walden closing. Well, at least I remember it was a while ago.

I thought it was bad enough that Jersey City could only support one book store. And, I thought it was worse that the only book store that Jersey City could support was a B. Dalton. Now, we don’t even have one. True, a path train ride away there’s some of the greatest bookstores in the world—well, there used to be—but there are still some of the greatest Barnes & Noble stores in the country! B. Dalton was a bookstore chained that opened mainly mall locations. —long before the spread of Barnes & Noble superstores. In fact, the chain was purchased by Barnes and Noble so it would have a mall presence.

I would love to make some snide jokes about how ill read our population is, but the closing of B. Dalton in Jersey City has more to do with trends in the current manifestation of post-industrial capitalism than most Americans desire not to read. Not only am I a voracious—some might say compulsive—reader—I know a little bit about the bookstore business. As a freelance writer in the 90s, I did some work for the trade publications then put out by the American Booksellers Association. The circulation for the magazines was bookstores. At the time, Barnes & Noble had like one location, on 19th and 5th avenue—in the 80s, I would make pilgrimages there. By the mid-90s, the Barnes & Noble superstore concept became popular with investors.

Though I hate chains, B&Ns are great book stores—they do have depth of inventory. The stores are designed to be a destination—chairs and tables for lounging, a star bucks in most of the stores. Black Water Books in Hoboken, Scribner’s on 5th Avenue, Cooper Square Books, Spring Street Books. All those great independent bookstores, gone The American Booksellers Association folded a bunch of magazines. There are no trade magazines for bookstores anymore because 90 percent or so it seems of all the brick and mortar bookstores are chains, a Barnes & Noble or a Borders. It happened in New York, a Mecca for bookstores and at one time, book lovers—imagine what has taken place across the land. B. Dalton never had the depth, wasn’t a superstore or a destination. There were like five hundred or so by the end of the 90s, and the company steadily closed them until 2009, when they decided to close the remaining 50 or so, our profitable J.C. outlet being one of the last to survive.

Seems B&N wants to better compete with Amazon. They are promoting their online sales more than the actual stores and they have some kind of e-reader, their version of The Kindle.These days you don’t have to needlessly visit a bookstore. Go the B&N website, you can see if a book is available at a specific store and if not—just order it online. Who wants to browse? Why waste time wasting time? That is, if thinking about what you want to read is a waste of time.

I’m not really complaining as much as I am observing. I buy things online, I just don’t really like to and have only done so a few times with books because it was the only way to get a hard to find rare one. I might even get a Kindle or Kindle like device, since reading a page on a screen is still reading and books take up space and collect dust! But, a city without a bookstore—a “downtown” where a bookstore can’t be supported. That is depressing.

In 2002, I worked at the Jersey City B. Dalton, for the Christmas season, part time. I was a freelance writer and because of an unfortunate series of events, I was having a tough autumn that year and I needed extra money. I was glad to get the job. It was an interesting experience—crappy money but I was able to make ends meet and by February things picked up for me.

There was some training—I had worked retail and a cash register in college and high school. We watched a video about Christmas Sales by Barnes and Noble—“hand-selling a book.” The gift items to push—a bonsai tree, a complete Shakespeare set were emphasized that year. One time the regional vice president was coming and everybody was there to clean up the place. The woman breezed it, about as self important as anybody I’ve ever met. She gave one employee a 25 dollar gift certificate because of his attitude. He was a born again Christian and bought a bible.

B. Dalton served what seemed like an essential role to our community. Students and teachers ordered books for school, mainly high-school. I was gratified to see that The Great Gatsby and The Awakening were still being assigned. Then there these—Study Guides. Not just for SATs, but for Security Guards, Truck Drivers, Medical Technicians, all sorts of fields to pass the various licensure and certification type exams. Even with all the Christmas sales, people came in for those manuals. They needed those books for their jobs, publications they both read and used. Yes, bookstores were not just for literary geeks like me.

Another memory: a fellow buys a book titled “Restoring Your Credit.” He didn’t have a wallet, paid for it in cash. I gave him the change—only coins. I’ll never forget his expression of anguish and embarrassment. I didn’t have a cell phone at the time, but I did encounter several folks—I remember one woman in particular—who conducted her entire purchase while gabbing away, one of the rudest things I have ever witnessed. I made sure to announce how much the book was and to wish her a nice day loudly so her conversation was interrupted. I got a cell phone soon there after and have never talked on the phone when it is my turn with the clerk at the counter.

The other strange discovery—books make you thirsty. Pages parch you. My job was to help customers find books, stock books, or work the cash register. You would get really thirsty, your mouth dry as salt. There was a water cooler in the back. Everybody had constant (though quenchable) thirst.

Surprising to me as well, people asked for book recommendations—at the time, Empire Falls had just came out in paperback and it was the best new novel I had read. I hand sold Richard Russo more than once for my brief time there. A lot of people still bought a good literary contemporary novel for Christmas presents. A lot of people needed something to write term papers with—Elements of Style.

The shelves near the register for Spanish Language and African American literature—a broadly defined category that include Zane, an excuse the pun, Hot author at the time. The Spanish texts I understood, but talking to the manager who hired me, and who was African American, I mentioned that while it might make them easier to find, I didn’t like the idea that African American writers where ghettoized—Richard Wright and Zora Neale Hurston should be with "all" Fiction & Literature. “Unfortunately,” she explained. “The black authors get shoplifted the most. We keep them here so we can keep an eye on them. And, they still get stolen the most.”

I felt both appalled and impressed. Of course—now the secret can be told—the security system at the Newport Mall B. Dalton was all a sham. The monitors did not function, the books had no security tags. A security guard worked there, but all the electronic stuff was just for show.

Working there was actually fun in some ways, enlightening in others. One day, I interviewed the Surgeon General of the United States for an article mainly about esoteric health policy in the afternoon than worked at the Newport Mall that night. That was a life lesson I still think about.

I saw sides of Newport Mall unnoticed by many, for instance, really scary teenagers hang out there at closing time, especially on the weekends. It was fun to watch the atmosphere go from slow in the morning then Mardi Gras crazy, with long lines and happy but hyper crowds. Everything a-buzz, Christmas Shopping at its peak. And, the managers of the stores trade merchandise with each other. I watched the then store manager do some real interesting negotiating that got her a fine leather jacket. I never found out how many books that jacket amounted to in the Newport Mall manager-to-manager exchange rate.

On Sunday, I wandered around the half empty store, remembering that Christmas so long ago now it seemed, and thinking about how my city no has no bookstore—even though I rarely ever bought anything there. I chatted with a guy who I know very slightly. He worked there when I was there, a senior employee. I feel bad he won’t have a job in ten days. Maybe bookstores are destined to go the way of record stores. I seemed to recall when the regional vice president—the title may have been regional manager—visited, she said this location was one of the more profitable B. Dalton. I guess they weren’t profitable enough. Let’s face it; no one will be opening any new bookstore any time soon, not even Barnes & Noble. What replaces the B. Daltons at the Newport Mall—a high end or low end store—and for how long the space remains vacant—will be quite indicative of the current state of the economy.

Even though as bookstores go—at least for my literary needs—the Newport Mall B. Dalton was pretty lame—working there showed me how a community actually uses a bookstore. It’s great for gifts, better magazines than you find at most newsstands here, the Awakening and the Great Gatsby, the Elements of Style, Study Guides for Air Conditioning Repair Certification. Maybe all that stuff is online, maybe you can get it on your Kindle or iPhone. And if not now, certainly eventually.

Of course, between now and eventually, Jersey City is left in a lurch. B. Dalton served a utilitarian purpose to Jersey City. Now it is gone, a store is empty, less sales tax revenue is collected and a few more people are out of work… and there’s one less place to browse and think about what you want to read next.

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