Friday, February 24, 2012

Standard-Times: Baker Books to move, downsize.

From today's edition of the New Bedford Standard-Times, here is some sad news about a SouthCoast institution:
Baker Books, a community icon for 23 years, is closing its Route 6 store this spring and revamping its business in response to upheaval in the book-selling industry.

The independent bookseller is moving into a smaller space near the New Bedford line and will focus on used books and special orders, said Deb Baker, who owns the business with her husband, Ben.

Online competition and the rise of electronic readers have challenged bookstores small and large.

"We tried to make the most of it, but the lease was coming due, so that was the final blow," Baker said. "We couldn't go into another five-year lease. I don't know what's going to happen with the book-selling business in the next six months."

Baker Books, which was first located in downtown New Bedford, has occupied the Route 6 building for about 16 years. It plans to close the store April 1 but could keep it open a while longer if the new location is not up and running by then.

The store employs about 12 staff members, mostly part-time, and Baker does not know how many people they will keep on in the revamped business.
This is sad news for me, as Baker Books has been an important part of my life. As a member of the last generation to grow up without the Internet, I can say that I really learned a lot from going to bookstores and libraries: the names of many literary greats first appeared to me on the spines of books stored on wooden shelves, rather than as the 'results' of a targeted 'search.' Baker Books' original downtown location was the place where I discovered a range of authors, from Camus to Proust to Hergé, and my means of discovery was often wonderfully random: a name or a title would catch my attention as I scanned the shelves, and, almost as if I were responding to a call directed to me personally, I would reach for the book, take a look at its contents, and, as often as not, purchase it and bring it home to read.

The Standard-Times article on Baker Books' planned move also offers some striking insights on the role that bookstores can still play in helping to build a robust sense of local community, even in an age when more and more of life seems to take place online and the book business in general is struggling. Here are the key paragraphs:
Customers visiting the store Thursday afternoon said independent bookstores are an integral part of the community and they were saddened to lose Baker Books, at least in its current form.

"My husband and I are very sad they are closing," said Barbara Najjar of Dartmouth as she left with a bag full of books. "We like them because they are local. It's really a shame."

Richard Mello, who owns an Adecco staffing agency franchise next door, said he often visits Baker Books to clear his mind and rejuvenate. He extolled the virtues of being able to browse and enjoy the serendipitous discovery of a book he didn't know.

To underscore his point, Mello noted he just came across a book on baseball legend Mickey Mantle, "The Last Boy" by Jane Leavy, which brought him back to his childhood.

Bookstores bring people with different interests together, he said.

"There are few opportunities in society for people to gather and have a sense of community," said Mello, who is also one of the leaders of the Southcoast Education Compact, a partnership of business leaders and educators. "Bookstores and libraries are the only two places you can go to and have a sense of community."
All of this reminds me that part of what has made Baker Books special to so many people on the SouthCoast is its particularly local focus. The store often hosts readings by local authors, and the "Local Interest" shelves boast an unparalleled selection of books about New Bedford and the surrounding area, including some that simply aren't available anywhere else. (By contrast, I recall that the first Borders in the area filled its "local" section with books about Boston and Cape Cod - neither place is "local" for residents of the SouthCoast.) With the downsizing of Baker Books, the SouthCoast stands a step closer to losing a precious part of its regional identity. For people like me who care about such things, that's something to be sad about. AMDG.


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