When this city's B. Dalton closes, no bookstore within 150 miles

When mall storefront B. Dalton shutters 49 stores next year, the city of Laredo, Texas will be closing the book entirely. Industry associations and book experts say it will be the largest American city without a single bookstore.

The store wouldn't close, of course, if more Texans had shopped there. For whatever cultural reason, though -- feel free to interject your own theory -- the people in Laredo, a border town of 230,000 citizens, don't read enough to support a single shop. Soon, they'll have to drive 150 miles, or nearly three hours, to San Antonio if they want to stock their shelves.

The Associated Press caught up with one customer as she left with a sack full of nine romance novels. "It's going to be a total bummer," she said. "It made me wish I had shopped there more."

The recession is teaching us some hard lessons. Establishments we always assumed would be with us forever are closing abruptly. More than ever it's becoming clear: Every dollar you spend is an investment in the store you spend it in.

Barnes & Noble, which owns B. Dalton, said the store did eke out a profit, but not enough of one to justify retaining it, particularly because the company is phasing out the smaller chain.

A mom-and-pop store would stay open if it made a profit, but in a depressing symptom of our national corporate addiction, making a profit is no longer enough for a company that's spread too thin.

B. Dalton is hardly known as a full-service bookstore. Its wares could be best categorized as doggedly, maybe even disappointingly, popular, like an equivalent of a cineplex that shows only blockbusters. Still, it's better than nothing at all, and citizens of Laredo, including schoolchildren, are writing the chain to beg it to reverse its decision.

Meanwhile, librarians at the Laredo library, who are also trying to keep the store open, are hoping to open two more public facilities to meet a rise in demand. Government services, in this case, are the only thing that stand a chance of meeting a vital public need for reading and learning.

Ironically, it's this traditional ranching town that will be forced to fully embrace modern technology. Residents of Laredo will now have to rely on electronic form of book reading, including reading from the Web, ordering from online stores, and downloading to the Kindle and Nook readers.

Those formats might have the potential of filling the reading gap, but they don't come close to solving the problem. Only the most mainstream, mass-appeal books are made available for download to e-readers, and only the oldest, public domain titles of renown are available for full reading on the Web through free sites such as Project Gutenberg.

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