There are a variety of perspectives one can hold on the closing of bookstores like Borders. Monday, I noted how the loss of chain bookstores can affect a local economy and its tax base. On the same subject, another commentator suggests cities need to be concerned about replacing these “third places”:
“Third place” is a decades-old term championed by sociologist Ray Oldenburg for venues which bring people together in the tradition of the American colonial tavern or general store. The idea remains central to urbanist thinking, and describes those places, other than home or work, where we gather, debate and trade. “No net loss” is a term borrowed from the vocabulary of wetland conservation, and allows for replacement of lost assets with equivalent resources…
In response to the Borders news, some pundits, like Josh Stephens in Planetizen, have called for a better, non-Walmartian reinvention of the bookstore. In his view, big boxes — even when urban — destroy Mom-and-Pop purveyors. Amazon and Kindle aside, he makes a good case for a new, post-recessionary wave of independent urban bookstore start-ups. For those bookstores, I hope that he is right.
But as to third places — and I am going to assume that “big books” uses can play such a role — there is something bothersome about the final demise of Borders’ urban core locations. While perhaps an opportunity for the independent competitor, what of the potential loss of third place uses in high-value urban downtowns?
Will the prime square footage occupied by Borders have similar third place potential once reclaimed? Will replacement uses provide the equivalent fusion business purposes of books, coffee, lecture and song?
In most cities and suburbs, is there really an acceptable “third place” alternative? Coffee shops tend to be small (and standardized – see Starbucks) and bars/taverns can be seen as attracting a certain crowd. Independent bookstores may be something to hope for but are difficult to pull off.
If communities are simply concerned with their tax base, filling these Borders sites with retail or restaurant uses would likely be just fine. In this perspective, any empty space is bad. On the other hand, this commentator is suggesting that communities should encourage (and incentivize?) certain uses that will at least maintain and perhaps build upon the “third place” nature of bookstores.
On another track, the commentator suggests bookstores offer the “fusion business purposes of books, coffee, lecture and song.” These functions sound more like entertainment or “culture” than “sociality.” Certainly, people can get to know each other while drinking coffee or listening to musicians but the “third place” is about something larger: providing safe, familiar spaces between work and home where citizens can talk with old friends, meet new people, and talk about important issues including society and politics. Third places should be where citizens can develop “bridging ties” as they step outside the realms of home and work. Does this really happen in bookstores like Borders?