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Booksellers turn the page in bid to stay in business

What is it about the closing of a bookstore•

Straight commercial realities no doubt dictate. Jobs are lost and the retail vacancy rate notches up. Yet there’s a cultural blow, too. Even fulltime TV watchers or football fans can’t feel good when a “For Lease” sign goes up in a window that used to display books.

Downtown Pittsburgh wasn’t the same after the old Kaufmann’s shut down its great book department, a big spread of the first floor past the escalator to the mezzanine, 30 or more years ago. Another hit will be taken at the end of this month, when Joseph-Beth Booksellers shuts down at the SouthSide Works, the eastern outpost of a quality Cincinnati chain that opened here six years ago.

Many factors are involved: the cost of retail footage on an expensive corner, technological change, new forms of competition, and an economy that can’t seem to turn the page.

A big concern is that books don’t have to be books anymore. A hand-held Kindle device the size of a paperback can hold — or order on demand — hundreds of titles. Someday thousands. And forget paper pages, you read a screen. Click a button and it “turns the page.” Older readers may want nothing to do with such progress but it’s just a generation gap.

A young woman on a bus was observed the other day reading from a screen, the “print” easy on the eye, large and dark. At her stop she put her library in her purse. All very convenient — and surely a heartache to traditional purveyors of Shakespeare, Dickens and Danielle Steele.

There are also so many ways of buying cheaper now than among the stacks. Book clubs market by mail to any number of segmented interests — military, culinary, erotic, neurotic, history and mystery. Books also reach home from Amazon.com “shopping carts.” And Wal-mart and Costco in their march to immensity have not neglected to discount most of a traditional merchant’s profit on best-sellers.

And let’s not forget books at libraries — free. People are pinching discretionary income nowadays. A book borrowed clearly saves on a book bought. Best-sellers lead the waiting lists at libraries.

The buildup of a lifetime personal library may also have lost some of its old charm. Modern books don’t last forever; it’s something to do with acid in the papermaking. And when senior citizens move on from big houses, it’s left to their children or estates to dispose of their beloved books.

The great thing about a Joseph-Beth or other booksellers large or small, unique, boutique or chain-owned, is that the lover of books, their feel, their aroma, the anticipation they impart of drama, experience or wisdom still to be discovered, is invited to browse. For minutes, hours, a whole day. Can’t think of any other commerce that encourages that.

Specifically, Joseph-Beth a few weeks ago hosted Karl Marlantes, author of “Marathon,” a novel of the Vietnam War that contains some of the best battle writing ever put to a page. It was a privilege to meet decorated veteran Marlantes — and come to think of it, how are you ever going to get a book autographed online• Then again, maybe that “progress” is on the way, too.


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