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Columns

July 23, 2011

Independent stores make up for loss of Borders

For many small communities, the Borders store at the nearest mall was the only place to browse and buy a variety of books, beyond the few titles offered in Walmart bestseller and bargain racks.

Unable to find a white knight to rescue it from bankruptcy, the nation's second-largest bookseller announced plans Monday to close its remaining 399 stores by the end of September, leaving a void in communities across the country _ including Oneonta, whose Southside Mall has had a Waldenbooks/Borders since it opened in the early 1980s.

As a lifelong bookworm who still can't imagine reading a novel on a small, handheld device, I'd never celebrate the loss of a brick-and-mortar bookstore. But I do take comfort in what seems to be a reverse trend. After years of seeing small, "mom-and-pop" stores pushed out by big-box retail chains, our area is fortunate to have a variety of independent bookstores to fill the Borders void.

It seems remarkable that, while Borders has fallen victim to the economic downturn and the rising popularity of online shopping and e-readers, the Delaware County village of Hobart is marketing itself as the "Book Village of the Catskills," and a relatively new indie bookstore is thriving on Oneonta's Main Street.

I haven't yet toured the book village, which has five Main Street bookstores plus two more in nearby Delhi and South Kortright. But I'm a huge fan of The Green Toad Bookstore in Oneonta, which opened in November 2008 _ a year after Amazon launched the Kindle and started the e-reading revolution.

With its relaxing music, comfy chairs, attractive décor and proximity to the Latte Lounge, The Green Toad feels like a destination, and shopping there feels like an event, not a chore.

It's one of the places I love in Oneonta, and one of the reasons I can argue with the old-timers who mourn the loss of Bresee's, Newberry's, Woolworth's and Thursday-night shopping. In my book, Main Street just keeps getting better. It may not be where you go to knock off your entire shopping list in one store, but it's a great place in which to eat, relax, take in some art or music, and find specialized products with the special service to match.

The Green Toad has a customer loyalty program (with no sign-up fees, loopholes or card-swiping), and the friendly staff behind the counter can always direct you right to a book. They'll also order any book you don't find on the shelves _ and maybe even ask you how you liked it the next time you stop in. In addition to a wide sampling of fiction and nonfiction titles, you can find jewelry, handbags, art supplies, puzzles, puppets and games at The Green Toad, which has become my go-to store for children's birthday gifts.

Much more than just a place to shop, The Green Toad has made a name for itself as a community gathering place for the literary-minded, hosting author readings, book-launch parties, poetry slams, trivia contests and children's story hours.

Last year, The Green Toad was one of two stores in the nation to receive a Pannell Award, given annually by the Women's National Book Association to retail bookstores that display passion, creativity, responsiveness to community needs and understanding of young readers. Five months later, the business received the Otsego County Chamber/Excellus BlueCross BlueShield annual Breakthrough Award for innovation in the marketplace.

Though I'm not a fan of e-reading, I recognize that in this green-conscious age, it may not make sense to keep filling shelves with paper books. The Green Toad has thought of that, too. At its annual book swap, the store windows are piled high with cast-off treasures, and anybody who brings in a book can participate in the exchange.

The bankruptcy of Borders proves you can't count on even the biggest bookstores to survive in the era of one-click ordering. So, if you love reading, if you relish the experience of browsing spines, reading dust jackets, meeting authors and cracking open a brand-new book, please fill your summer reading list at The Green Toad or another local bookstore.

Independent bookstores play a vital role in nurturing communities of readers, writers and storytellers. They help to sustain the creative spirit that keeps great stories _ and great art, and great music and great ideas _ coming. Happily, in our area, at least, it seems their story is just getting started.

Lisa Miller is a freelance writer and editor who lives in Oneonta. She can be reached at lisamiller44@ hotmail.com.

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