Thursday, December 2, 2010

silver spring vs. portland: bookstores

What does downtown Silver Spring and Portland have in common? They both know the power of a good bookstore. It's not just about literacy and education and having places for teenagers to loiter hang out after school. It's also about making urban space a little brighter and more interesting.

Sunny Days & Starry Nights
Here's the Borders on Ellsworth Drive in downtown Silver Spring.

Powell's Books, Portland
And here's Powell's Books in Portland, perhaps the best bookstore you or I will ever go to. The selection is extensive (many, many floors), the staff knowledgable, and the prices reasonable - as everything is in Portland, despite the city's reputation for being trendy.

At both Powell's and Borders, the big, lighted windows connect inside and outside, giving people on both sides something to look at. Both places are open late, keeping the areas around them busy in the evenings. And they each attract their own kind of street life. You'll usually find teenagers hanging around outside the Borders in downtown Silver Spring, it being one of the few places (outside City Place Mall) that's not a restaurant and has things someone in high school can actually afford. When I visited Powell's last winter, I noticed a lot of homeless youth around the store - again, because it's open late and a fairly cheap place to "earn" time inside.

It's not necessarily a bad thing for these stores to attract young people. After all, they provide an amenity for everyone else - and the presence of more people, regardless of status, makes their respective areas safer and more enjoyable. I know I'd rather spend a day poking around Powell's than visiting Borders' store at Columbia Crossing in Howard County, a typical big box:

Borders, Columbia Crossing

The Borders in downtown Silver Spring is, of course, a chain. Unlike Powell's, it isn't a unique local resource (though Powell's does have a website and delivers goods nationwide) and the money made there may not stay in the community. But I'd bet that its urban form earns it the status of Neighborhood Bookstore for more people than the Borders in Columbia Crossing. For a chain store, that kind of relationship is worth its weight in gold.

Certainly, this kind of post would earn me some hackles from folks who prefer to patronize locally-owned businesses for exactly the reasons I state above, so to appease them, I'll also mention Silver Spring Books on Bonifant Street, a real-life local bookstore just a block away from Ellsworth Drive and favored shop of local crime writer George Pelecanos, who complains that dumb kids like me and others under 25 are "programmed" to visit chain stores exclusively.


jag2923 said...

So annoying that Borders locked their secondary entrance/the coffee shop entrance. Though it is pretty funny to watch as every 30 seconds someone walks up to the door and tries to figure out why there's no handle on it. But anyways, there better have been some major shoplifting going on, otherwise Borders really sucks.

Patrick said...

I would be shocked if there wasn't a lot of shoplifting from that Borders. It's unfortunate that criminals and immature kids have to ruin stuff for us regular people.