At any time of day, Aventura’s Barnes & Noble was abuzz in a low-key bookstore sort of way, seemingly always crowded with browsers, latte-sippers, magazine page-flippers, kids doing homework and, yes, people buying actual books.
So it came as a shock to the store’s loyal customers when it shut down on New Year’s Eve, leaving a big-bookstore void for miles around.
The disappearance of the 20-year-old Aventura store, following the closure of Barnes & Noble’s Hollywood store earlier last year and the failure of the Borders chain before that, means there is no major bookstore across the northern half of Miami-Dade and a stretch of southern Broward counties.
That broad landscape is dotted with the shells of book superstores, a reflection not just of rapidly changing book-buying habits and big-store economics, but, perhaps, also the erosion of the bookstore’s once-vital place in American culture.
“It’s sad and spooky,’’ said Plantation book lover Brian Rick, who often drives by the still-vacant Borders store he used to frequent at Sunrise Boulevard and Flamingo Road in Southwest Broward. “It’s a horrible feeling, like passing a shipwreck.’’
Yet the closing of the Aventura Barnes & Noble is not all bad news.
It was the consequence not of dropping sales but of a disagreement between the chain, which says the store was a stellar performer, and a new landlord, Turnberry Associates, which is redeveloping the old Loehmann’s Fashion Island site. Barnes & Noble is looking for a new location in North Miami-Dade, but says it will be many months before a new store opens.
In the meantime, its former patrons are driving miles to other Barnes & Noble stores, to local independent stalwart Books & Books’ three locations, or resorting, some reluctantly, to the brick-and-mortar stores’ low-priced arch-nemesis, Amazon.com, which has sucked away a big chunk of the big chain’s sales.
What they don’t seem to be doing, at least judging from a stream of passionate responses to a query on the Public Insight Network, is reading, buying or caring less about books.
Almost uniformly, respondents — many of whom said they have e-readers and confess to placing the occasional Amazon order — said nothing can replace physical bookstores, which function not just as centers of commerce, but as community hubs and repositories of intelligent life in a metropolitan area that, fairly or not, is better known for other things.
That experience, what Miami Dade College philosophy professor Christopher Halloran described as the “social lubricant” of coffee, books and conversation, is something Amazon doesn’t provide, they say. Nor can Amazon provide knowledgeable sales staff, author readings, or a good reason to get out of the house. And many readers still prefer the beauty, smell, heft and tactile pleasure of ink and paper bound with glue, over e-books.
“People are definitely, definitely into books. You want to touch it, feel it,’’ said Felice Dubin, owner of the small independent Bookstore in the Grove, who says customers increasingly complain of what she called “digital fatigue’’ from electronic screens.
Like Books & Books, Dubin’s 5-year-old Coconut Grove store has bucked the trends. It opened in a dismal economy after Borders in the Grove closed, but sales improved, and the store had “a great year’’ in 2012. In the manner of successful indie stores, Dubin and business partner Sandy Francis supplement book sales with an on-site bakery, a cafe and wine bar, and gifts, and draw traffic with activities like a weekly story time for kids. Business grew even more after the Borders in nearby Coral Gables closed.