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Thursday, Feb. 29, 2024
The Observer

Death of company causes death of town

Bethesda, Maryland, located several miles outside of Washington, D.C., and famous for the Naval Facility where President John F. Kennedy's autopsy was performed, is a vibrant mix of restaurants and shops. It’s always busy. It’s small yet urban enough that you can walk everywhere. People from giggly adolescents to old married couples walk through the town no matter the season.

The town’s focal point is the Barnes and Noble bookstore. Here, people of all ages gather. Young, enthusiastic readers snatch as many books as they can carry off the shelves. In fact, An Odyssey Online article entitled “50 Things Only DMV [District, Maryland, Virginia] Natives Can Relate To” listed the statement “the Bethesda Barnes and Noble was your childhood” at number 26. It serves as a destination for teenagers wandering through the town. Old friends meet for coffee in the interior Starbucks. During the sweltering D.C. summer, shaved ice is on sale in the plaza outside. A Menorah and Christmas tree mark the holidays in the same place.

The surprise March 31st announcement that the Barnes and Noble was closing stunned Bethesda. As a result of a rent issue, the store will close at the end of the year.

A petition to save the store gathered over 4,300 signatures. A local resident, quoted in “Bethesda Magazine,” said that it felt like “the death of a friend.”

The demise of the Bethesda Barnes and Noble is indicative of a wider trend. Local institutions are dying, and with them the communities they serve. American society is starting to balkanize into echo chambers and bubbles. People deal with people like them. The store was a rare venue where people from different walks of life could come and interact. Such places are disappearing quickly.

Technology has played no small part in this phenomenon. Through our phones, the world is at our fingertips. Why patronize community gathering places when we can talk to friends and entertain ourselves on our phones? Why meet new people when friends are just a text message away? Why read a book when you can watch Netflix?

Corporations also deserve blame. The only reason the Barnes and Noble is closing is because the landlords want more money. Many community based small businesses throughout the country have faced similar problems when huge corporations move into town. Granted, Barnes and Noble is a national chain. But the problem is the same: locals can’t keep up with big business, and the character of the community suffers.

There are many reasons the country is divided. But the lack of shared places and experiences has a huge part in the fragmentation. It’s easier to live in a bubble when all of the community gathering places are gone.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.