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Goodbye Brick and Mortar: Why the Closing of this Barnes & Noble is a Problem

Vanessa Willoughby

Staff Writer

Vanessa Willoughby is an editor and a writer. Her work has appeared on The Toast, The Hairpin, Bitch, Bookslut, Thought Catalog, and Literally, Darling.

My life has been defined by literature, or rather, access to literature. I’ve always been an avid reader, someone who absorbs a book’s narrative as an interactive primer on a way to live. Growing up, it was much easier to turn to the comfort of a book for a sense of identity, to temporarily lose myself in the pages, knowing that I would emerge out of the experience changed or reborn. I can’t imagine navigating adolescence without a neighborhood bookstore. Like a library, there is something awe-inspiring about being in the presence of so many books. Unfortunately for the residents of the Bronx, 1.5 million people will soon lose their only Barnes & Noble.

The closing of Barnes & Noble is a blow to the community. According to the New York Times, “The loss contributes to a long-held sense that the Bronx is still shunned, even as its years of blight, arson and rampant crime are long past.” What does a neighborhood lose when a corporate bookstore such as Barnes & Noble is removed? Bookstores are more than just a place to buy books. Taking away such a valuable resource means that residents no longer have a place to come together and connect. Bookstores encourage a space devoted to healthy community partnerships and the pursuit of knowledge and curiosity. They feed young minds wanting to learn more about the world and step outside the predictability of the familiar. For people who don’t have the privilege, luck, or financial means to extensively travel or even leave their environment, a book can provide that chance.   

Claudette Mobley, a 72-year-old retired news, told the Times, “I really do think that there is a preconceived concept that folks that live in the Bronx, they’re not interested in reading, or that they are going to steal everything.” Yet in a study conducted by Pew Research while looking at engagement with electronic book formats, they found that “The most likely person to read a book — in any format — is a black woman who’s been to college.”

The argument that the Bronx doesn’t need a bookstore because no one reads is not only rooted in classism, it’s rooted in racist stereotypes. I have had (white and black) people insist black people don’t read. Obviously, this is is a ridiculous notion and typically rooted in both delusion and ignorance. The closing of the Bronx Barnes & Noble may not seem like a race-related issue, but when we look at the neighborhood demographics, it’s not a stretch to conclude that these decisions are shaped by more than just driving rent prices.

Does the closing of Barnes & Noble have anything to do with gentrification? The word is thrown around a lot when discussing the evolving cultural and socio-economic landscape of the nation’s major cities. We typically associate gentrification as a process of white-backed dollars pricing out the neighborhood’s minorities. We think of mom and pop shops turning into juice press bars and yoga studios. We think of the process of tearing down to build again, displacing people in order to make room for new, anemic carbon copies of corporate franchises on every corner.

Gentrification may bring in new businesses and give neglected neighborhoods a superficial facelift, but it often comes at the expense of its native citizens. Interestingly enough, the Bronx is “often left in the cold by retailers,” the Times said. The Bronx is the only NYC borough that doesn’t have an Apple store. Although they requested one, an Apple store has yet to be built. Meanwhile, Fort Greene, a neighborhood often used as a prime example of gentrification, is set to have another Apple store opening in the near future.

Bookstores can represent the possibility of upward mobility and a commitment to cultural advancement and achievement. A bookstore can become the heart of a community or a place of solace. When asked about the closing of Barnes and Noble in the Bronx, author Dan Sax told the Times, “Bookstores are located in neighborhoods and areas that are intelligent, elegant, intellectually curious…“So for the Bronx, there is a sense of a loss of self-worth — beyond that if you lose a sneaker shop — that they weren’t good enough, smart enough to deserve books.”

Without Barnes and Noble, it might allow independent bookstores to step in and account for its absence. As reported by the American Booksellers Association, there has been more than a thirty percent growth in independent bookstores since 2009. On the other hand, why should the Bronx have to make that kind of compromise?