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.
Now Dubin and Francis are facing a new challenge. Their landlord, Mayfair in the Grove, moved them from a prime corner on Grand Avenue, which it’s converting to offices, to a location on a quiet back street. After two weeks in the new place, they say, their regulars have found them, and their cafe business has held steady, but they’re concerned walk-in traffic from tourists may fall.
They note an obvious irony: Many communities lack a bookstore in part because Barnes & Noble put many a neighborhood bookseller out of business with its breakneck expansion in the ‘80s and ‘90s. The chain is now going in reverse, closing 15 to 20 stores a year across the country. It expects to prune a further 200 stores or so by 2023 to a total of around 500 locations.
“Now they’re leaving entire communities without bookstores because the little guys couldn’t survive,’’ Francis said.
That doesn’t mean people in South Florida don’t want bookstores, said Books & Books owner Mitchell Kaplan, who has long argued that the region’s book culture is actually stronger than most, noting the success of the city’s book fair and his own shops, which are thriving when other towns have lost their independents.
“Miami as a book town is a pretty vibrant place. We have writers moving here or writing about Miami. We have three big writing programs,’’ he said, referring to college creative-writing programs. “Compare it to Dallas, Houston, even Denver. It compares very favorably.
“But do I think chain stores closing is good? No. I think it hurts the book ecology and the publishing industry.’’
Kaplan cautions readers not to expect that indies will rush in to fill the gap left by chain closings, however. “Every neighborhood wants a bookshop, but the economics of bookstores mean not every neighborhood can have one,’’ he said.
Fabienne Josaphat, a grad student in creative writing at Florida International University who lives in North Miami Beach, calls it “absurd’’ that she now has to travel miles just to pick up a book. But she also has gladly driven to Books & Books many times for appearances by authors she admires.
“I much prefer going to a bookstore rather than spending the time online,’’ said Josaphat, 34. “Going to readings, grabbing a glass of wine, asking questions and interacting with authors, you can’t replace that experience. It’s vital.’’
Some former patrons of the Aventura Barnes & Noble suggest Turnberry made a mistake in letting it go because bookstores serve as a draw for educated people with money to spend.
“The property owners who kicked B&N out are about as smart as a bag of rocks,’’ wrote Sam Beasley, of Hallandale Beach.
A Turnberry spokesman did not respond to requests for an interview with company officials.
Beasley won’t get an argument from Barnes & Noble’s vice president for real estate, David Deason, who contends that reports of the bricks-and-mortar bookstore’s death have been greatly exaggerated. Real books are still in great demand and profitable, he said. By contrast, e-book readers, like the chain’s own Nook, are mostly used for bestsellers, which are heavily discounted and produce thin margins, he said.
“We’ve got a robust business. When you go and hang out at a bookstore, you can see for yourself,’’ he said. “Look in the Coral Gables store. Pop into Kendall.
“There is an opportunity for new forms of distribution,’’ he said. “It doesn’t mean the old form is going to be eliminated. There is something about Shakespeare that makes sense in print, but you’re not so jazzed about it electronically.’’
The chain is concentrating on its best performing locations, and the store in Aventura, with the area’s affluent, educated residents, was one of those. But Deason said the store was forced out by Turnberry, which wanted to drastically alter its footprint and in the end would not extend the lease.
The Hollywood store, by contrast, did half the business of the Aventura store, he said.
What would book lovers do if the worst were to happen and Miami lost its bookstores?
“Cry. Lament. Beat my chest,’’ said MDC’s Halloran.
Said Patrick Pineyro of Miami, a devoted Books & Books patron: “Honestly, I would move.’’
This article includes comments from the Public Insight Network, an online community of people who have agreed to share their opinions with The Miami Herald. Sign up by going to MiamiHerald.com/Insight.