Goodbye, B. Dalton. The closing of the last bookstore is a sad, familiar tale: A chain with many fans and a great history gets sold to a larger competitor, is wrung dry and shuttered, and its first flagship store closed with little fanfare.
I refer, of course, to the Pickwick chain, which B. Dalton bought in 1968 and ran as a discount bookstore until they axed the brand in 1986. The original Pickwick store was on Hollywood Boulevard, and counted F. Scott Fitzgerald and Charlie Chaplin as its customers. It's been closed for 15 years. Few remember it; few will remember the Southdale B. Dalton in 2025.
Except for the old toothless bookworms in nursing homes, that is; they'll remember what life was like before B. Dalton brought the bounty of Gutenberg to the people. If you lived in a small town, there was no such thing as a bookstore. There were the bestsellers at the department store, a squeaky wire rack at the drugstore with tawdry paperbacks, the second-hand store piled to the ceiling with smelly old tomes, run by an old weirdo with bad teeth, and the library, where a quiet old lady kept track of everyone who checked out "Peyton Place." (Filth!) Or you could subscribe to Reader's Digest's Condensed Books, which somehow boiled down novels by removing certain plots or characters or vowels.
So imagine how we swooned when a B. Dalton store opened. When the malls came to the small towns, B. Dalton was there -- a bright, shiny place with wide aisles, like a jewelry store for readers, filled with books that had been recently published. I cannot stress that last point enough; in those days everyone in New York got to read books first, and then they were put on sleds and dragged to the Midwest by oxen.
The chain's closing is another blow to local pride. Back then, a Minnesotan would go to far-flung Iowa or Chicago, see a B. Dalton, and know it was an embassy of our literate, smart state.
Once you could just buy a book. Now you're subjected to an interrogation that makes you feel like you've presented a passport stamped with visas from Iran and Syria. It's the same every time I buy a book:
"Are you a member of our Members Club Advantage Plus Group?"
"No. I am actually illiterate and have purchased this novel to burn it for warmth."
"Would you like to be a member and receive e-mail alerts and coupons?"
"The prospect of having an opinion on the matter one way or the other fills me with a strange sadness."
The exchange always leaves me embarrassed, as if I've admitted I don't read very much. As an author myself, I'd hate to hear Stephen King is living on the streets, offering to shout BOO! to people for a dollar.
I avoid the problem by buying from Amazon -- but I still enjoy bookstores for reasons Amazon can never duplicate. There's something to be said for buying a book and being able to read it right away, for shelves full of surprises.
But the future is not the book; the future is a tablet with all your newspapers, all your magazines, all your novels on it. An endless array of material, instantly accessible. If B. Dalton had survived as a brand for an additional decade, it might have been reborn as an online store -- a place where someone in a small town could buy one of a million texts. Only that would have saved it. The pleasures of print are increasingly enjoyed by a select audience, like the people who restore old trains.
The Southdale store that closes this month isn't the original store, by the way. It's a smaller version down the hall from the big, proud bookstore that held down the Donaldson's end of the mall. The original store has had a new tenant for years.
Apple. They're rumored to announce their tablet this month.