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August 03, 2011

I'll admit it. I was a bookstore mooch.

If you're like me, the recent announcement that Borders is in liquidation was a kick to the gut. Whether you're a student cramming for a final or a professional decompressing on the weekend, there's just no better spot to hang out than the comforting embrace of a brick and mortar bookstore. The best-seller shelves, the staff recommendation cards with handwritten suggestions, the implicit understanding that anywhere is fine to sit on the floor and turn pages. Yes, the bookstore is home. Unfortunately, due to online competition and publishing's inevitable shift to digital, these wonderful havens may not be with us much longer. I can't help but think I'm one of the reasons.
It began innocently enough. Twelve years ago, I was hunting down a rare Argentinian short story collection, and the only place that had it was this strange website called Amazon.com. After that first taste, I started buying all my books online. What can I say? It was easy and cheap, and I was simple and poor. But despite going online for my shopping, I frequented bookstores more and more. Pulp and Jacket, a quirky independent bookstore down the street from my apartment, was a great place to browse -- the way you just can't do online. Even better, they'd let you hole up in the cafe and read whatever you liked without the annoying burden of buying it. Sure, I'd get a drink at the cafe every so often, just so I wasn't a total mooch. But I got pretty skilled at stretching it out. I think I read Gravity's Rainbow over the course of one coffee.

Of course, for free access to books I could've gone to the library. But what you won't find at your local branch are your best friends, and that's what Pulp and Jacket's staff were to me. I can't tell you how many times they tracked down books I'd heard about but didn't know the title. Then, after I'd determined the books were cheaper on Amazon, they'd even order them for me on the store computer. Was I taking advantage of them? Maybe, but once you realize you've got trained professionals at your beck and call, it's hard not to. I never would've gotten my Master's without Ben, a senior clerk who wrote large parts of my thesis on Milton. I'd be, like, Ben, you're so smart and overqualified, how are you not getting paid more for your skills? He'd always sidestep the question, but I'd catch an annoyed look through his beard as he watched me snap an iPhone photo of a book I'd buy online for my Kindle.

For years this was the routine, and then my living situation got even more complicated. That's when I moved into Pulp and Jacket. I admit it sounds weird, but I needed a place to stay while I sorted my life out. Besides, I was already using the cafe as my freelance office. It was surprisingly easy -- I'd just hide from the staff each night during closing, pitch a tent in the foreign policy section (nobody ever visits), and cat-bath in the restroom each morning. I wish I could say I bought more books from the store while I was secretly using it for lodging, but at that time I'd just got an Amazon Prime account, and, man, free two-day shipping is pretty damn sweet.

I didn't buy much back then anyway -- my freelancing business wasn't getting much traction and I was starting to feel the financial squeeze. Something had to give, and that's when I started stealing directly from the Pulp and Jacket registers. I know, it's kind of hard to justify that. I'm not proud of it. I know what you're thinking. How could I steal money from the very store that had served me so well my entire adult life? I don't have a good answer. Except that it was much harder to steal from Amazon. Despite my Kindle, I'm not very tech savvy.

I always meant to pay the money back to Pulp and Jacket, I swear. Unfortunately, that's not possible now that they're going out of business. I feel horrible about it -- our neighborhood losing such an important cultural hub. So I guess I'm writing this to clear my conscience. Pulp and Jacket, I took advantage of all you had to offer -- I spent about 2,543 hours in your store, I commanded 243 staff man-hours, I hogged your electric outlets from real customers, I dog-eared your expensive design books, and I stole the only revenue you had. In return, over the course of 12 years, I bought seven medium coffees and a Happy Easter card for my mom.

Wow, I feel so much better now that I've gotten that off my chest. But please, despite my courageous honesty here, I'm not the hero. We need to band together and support bookstores, in whatever form they take. I don't have a clue whether they should try charging for author readings or somehow transition to a premium library model. But I'll tell you this. If and when a new independent bookstore opens in my neighborhood, I'm going to tell the owner how much I appreciate what his store provides to the community. And then I'm going to head right to the cash register and buy the biggest, most expensive coffee drink they make. And I'm going to try like hell not to spill it on the book I read at the cafe. It's the least I can do.