The news that a Whole Foods store might replace the Barnes & Noble bookstore in the Fremont Hub fills me with a sense of melancholy. Don’t get me wrong; having a child with allergies, I have been making the trek across to the Palo Alto store regularly, and my family is a fan of the large variety of organic foods the store stocks. And Whole Foods is certainly a desperately needed sign of upward mobility for this sleepy town, especially if you’re Indian American and have to deal with the patronizing sneers of your peers across the bay.
But replacing food for thought with, well, just food is also a sign of the times. When I arrived in Fremont over a decade ago, the Newpark Mall in neighboring Newark was a favorite destination for me and my young son. The toy store was an attraction, sure, but if I recall correctly, there were also two bookstores spread across the sprawling space. For a new immigrant coming to an unknown town, it was a reassuring indication that my future home was filled with fellow bibliophiles. I don’t think I ever made a trip to the mall without returning with a handful of picture books and novels.
Alas, those stores have vanished much too quickly, falling under the dual onslaught of cheap online retailers and the decline of print. Dollar stores have cropped up in their place, plastic-y symbols of the economic recession.
But the B&N bookstore in the Hub has held on, despite competition from another bookstore right across the street. I remember several last-minute dashes to pick up birthday and Christmas gifts. Meetings with friends would be set for the coffee shop next door, but invariably one’s feet would wander into the aisles of bargain books, and minutes would be spent browsing through the shelves of cookbooks and romance novels.
In my 40s, I think I belong to last generation that truly loves the feel of a book; the rustle of the pages, the smell of printer’s ink, the heft and weight of a book on my quilt-covered stomach on a rainy winter’s day. To this day, if I find myself at a loose end, there’s no other place I’d rather be than a bookstore, hoping to discover a new series of thrillers, or stumbling upon the latest No.1 Ladies Detective Agency novel.
I hope I’ve communicated that love of reading to my children. Many a lazy Saturday morning has been spent sprawled in the children’s section of local bookstores, introducing them to the wonderful imaginations of Maurice Sendak and James Stevenson. But these sanctuaries of the printed word are fast disappearing, along with newspapers and magazines.
My children’s children will probably never know anything but digital media, preferring backlit text in unyielding electronic slabs to pliable paper. But that’s not my real concern. What I worry about is the message the loss of these bookstores is sending the next generation; that, as a community, we value upscale produce over intellectual stimulation. In an era of corporate media and reality TV, erudition is already deemed to be elite; politicians tout their shallow understanding as representative of their constituencies; gut instincts and strong convictions seem to trump bookish learning and Ivy-league educations. We may not be burning our books like in Fahrenheit 411, but the slow extinction is even more insidious, because it is gradual and cloaked in a sense of inevitability.
This is not to put down progress, but, without a book, how I am I going to occupy myself while sipping my cup of organic tea in the Whole Foods café?