Here's the supersecret method I use to determine if a bookstore is any good: Find the fiction section, locate the Es, and look for Stanley Elkin. If a bookstore carries Elkin's novels, it's a sign of all-around quality. Elkin, who died in 1995, was a masterful writer with a playful love of language that few authors this side of Nabokov could match—it's a good bet that almost every literary author you admire has read and loved Stanley Elkin's fiction.
But many bookstores don't carry Elkin's novels because they're obscure and they don't sell—you'd be lucky to have one stolen every other year, compared to perennial sellers like Kerouac. Granted, any bookstore can order Elkin's books—the nonprofit Dalkey Archive Press keeps them all in print, supposedly forever—but so can I, from my laptop, on my couch. A bookstore that carries Stanley Elkin has more than good taste; it has a commitment to its stock and a willingness to shelve excellent books that don't pay for their own real estate.
There is absolutely no trace of Stanley Elkin in the brand-new, 26,368-square-foot "Concept Borders" that just opened in the new Westfield Southcenter Mall, a behemoth temple to commerce that finished extensive remodeling a few weeks ago.
The Concept Borders looks like pretty much any other Borders, only bigger, and with more stuff. Tim Anderson, Borders' zone director for the West Coast, gives me and a reporter from Kent a media tour of the new store. Anderson says that these Borders, which are supposed to combine the "online experience with the retail experience," are "the future of this company." Anderson and a team of Borders brass lead the two of us around the store for about an hour and a half, detailing their "concepts" and their hope for the future.
Unfortunately, the future for Borders is about five years ago for everyone else. The concept behind this Concept Borders? Computers, so customers can customize things: Anderson shows us kiosks where customers can burn mix CDs from an online database or buy music to download onto their (non-iPod or Zune) MP3 players. He shows us computers reserved for looking up and printing recipes, computers for making travel plans, and computers for composing photo albums on Shutterfly (although you can't upload photos onto Borders' computers). Basically, it's a crappy version of the internet, only with a lot of annoying restrictions.
Borders seems to be banking on the continued computer illiteracy of its older consumers. As we tour the new electronics section, Anderson admits that these customizing options are "more appealing to the baby-boomer demographic" and other people who "need a friendly face" to help them with technology. At first, this seems like a doomed proposition, but over the course of the media tour, the reporter from Kent falls in love. As Anderson introduces the audio-book kiosk, where customers can download audio books onto their (again, due to licensing restrictions, non-iPod or Zune) MP3 players, the reporter from Kent loses her shit: "So, like, you can listen to a book when you're driving in your car?"
She has a follow-up question: "Who reads these books? Is it the author?" It becomes quickly apparent that she believes that Borders has just invented the concept of an audio book. Nobody disabuses her of that notion.
All over the store, episodes of "Borders TV" are broadcast on televisions mounted in each section. Above the cookbook stacks, TV chefs make Borders-exclusive recipes. Above the wellness section, new-agey music plays as a well-kept middle-aged woman stretches in front of a fake beach backdrop. "People can really interact with Borders TV," Anderson says, and his crew of Borders upper management nods and murmurs its agreement. I can't help but think that the din caused by the televisions would be distracting if I were trying to, you know, read a book.
Later, Anderson gives each of us a blank CD and sits us down at the music computers, telling us we can burn whatever we want onto it. "Oh! Sugarland!" the lady from Kent enthuses, "I just love Sugarland!" "Who doesn't love Sugarland?" chirps a Borders marketing person who has been silently following us for the last half an hour. The reporter shakes her head in wonder and gushes, "This place is like a toy store for adults!"
Not everything in this Borders has to do with overestimating the stupidity of the American public: There is a large and well-stocked comic-book section, for instance, and the children's section is beautiful. A self- publishing kiosk partners with Lulu.com to supposedly bring self-published books to Borders shelves with ease and allow greater visibility for authors, which seems like an unusually democratic move for an international corporation. But the books seem pushed aside by the fancy TVs and computers and connectivity. At the end of the tour, we're delivered to the Seattle's Best Coffee tucked in the corner of the bookstore for free beverages and cake samples. The reporter from Kent is still awed, surveying the bookstore. "This is amazing," she says, before we all go our separate ways.
It's enough to make somebody crave a real bookstore: Inner Chapters Bookstore and Cafe is setting up shop inside one of the few old buildings in South Lake Union that has survived Paul Allen's wake. The shelves aren't filled with books yet—according to owner Kristina Barnes, Inner Chapters is going to be primarily a used bookstore, although it will carry as many new books as customers seem interested in—but it's a space intended for reading and leisurely time spent among books: a good selection of magazines, a cafe counter, a couch and other comfortable seats, and a large room lined with bookshelves lit by natural light from a skylight.
After a flurry of buying books and stocking its shelves, Inner Chapters' official grand opening is scheduled for August 16. Barnes, her voice already full with the mixture of hope and worry particular to bookstore owners in the 21st century, says that the cafe is doing well and that the locals have stopped by to express how happy they are to have a bookstore in the neighborhood.
In the fiction section, a copy of Stanley Elkin's The Magic Kingdom leans on a nearly empty shelf. It's one of his best (and least read) novels, about a group of Make-A-Wish cancer kids on a disastrous trip to Disneyland. It's a little like bumping into an old friend in a new neighborhood. Once the shelves are filled, this is going to be a wonderful place to browse.