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The lesson of Borders: Bookstores need to guide us

By Richard Nash, Special to CNN
  • Thousands will be unemployed with the liquidation of Borders, says Richard Nash
  • In an era of unlimited culture, Borders couldn't help sift through it, he says
  • Millions of Americans read for five hours a day, so books will remain with us, he says
  • Nash: Borders employees can remain part of the book ecosystem as matchmakers

Editor's note: Richard Nash is the founder of the social-publishing platform Cursor and publisher of the imprint Red Lemonade.

(CNN) -- We are without doubt in the middle of the greatest explosion in creativity we humans have ever witnessed -- more music, more images, more news, more words. It's part of what killed Borders, the giant bookstore chain that just announced its liquidation. And it's why the thousands of people who are about to lose their jobs at Borders are more important than ever.

There are many reasons why the tiny, scrappy independent publisher I ran from 2001 to 2009, Soft Skull Press, became a publisher with a Pulitzer finalist and books on bestseller lists from the Singapore Straits Times to the Boston Globe to the Los Angeles Times. Those reasons include the quality of the books themselves, the engaging authors, the supportive media (sometimes!). But the main reason people discovered our books, read them, and told their friends about them, is that thousands of people over the decade unpacked a box of books and, in the process of putting one on a shelf, got curious about it, decided to read it, and recommended it to friends, co-workers and, yes, customers.

This process replicated itself for hundreds of publishers and tens of thousands of books, numbers that grew as technology made it easier and cheaper to create traditional printed books. America's book retail sector grew fast in the 1990s and 2000s (with hindsight, faster than the economy could sustain) to keep up with the growth in the publishing of books, enabled by cheap credit (again, with hindsight, perhaps too cheap). Superstore after superstore opened, offering customers more choice than had ever before been found in most physical bookstores.

But selection, whether of books or of music, was hardly a compelling reason to go to Borders, when Amazon had all the books you could want, and iTunes (or the file-sharing site du jour) all the downloads you could want. We have more culture, more media, than we can now consume in a thousand lifetimes -- we don't need any more choice. What we need is help in choosing. Borders was not offering that.

It is unfair to single out Borders, though there were certainly factors in Borders' decline specifically, factors that have been discussed at length among industry insiders. The reality is that the logistics of selling books to America's readers doesn't require a few thousand superstores with 40,000 titles in each. So the book retail sector has to shrink and will continue to shrink, whether it was more independent stores, or some chains closing, or other chains shrinking.

But it need not vanish. Sixty-four million Americans read five hours a week or more, 16 million Americans report they have engaged in creative writing, and more than 2 million titles went on sale in the U.S. last year. With all that supply and demand, we need matchmakers, people with expertise, knowledge, and intuition to connect people with books, to offer help in choosing what to read.

A book requires you to give over the inside of your head for several hours to another person's voice, whispering in your ear. It's a remarkably intimate act, one that people are not going to entrust to a Buy X Get Y algorithm. The power of Oprah's Book Club, after all, lay not just in its ratings but in the intimacy of Oprah's relationship with her fans.

Where will we find all the mini-Oprahs we need to connect writers and readers? Bookstores can and should be sites for this conversation. Increasingly, the good ones are places where people seeking deeper engagement with their culture and society choose to congregate. They are offering language classes, reading groups, singles nights, writing workshops, self-publishing solutions.

Not all bookstores have gotten on board with the transition from being a place where books await customers to being a locale of social and cultural exchange, which happens to support itself in part by selling books. The brilliant Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas has noted that the less a retail experience is focused on selling stuff and the more it is about something else -- an event, an occasion, a vision -- the more a store will sell.

We may think of bookstore clerks as just underpaid drones, but the reality is that most people who work in bookstores do so because they love reading and writing. I believe that Borders employees past and present can become part of an emerging system of supporting writing and reading, whether in new bookstores or new online ventures, operating as the matchmakers of the book ecosystem.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Richard Nash.