A few days ago I tried to stop by the Barnes and Noble store here in New York at Fifth Ave. and 18th St., just to find that it had closed earlier this month. This was the first book store I had access to as a high school student that had a serious collection of math, physics and astronomy books, and I’ve been buying such books there for about 40 years. The huge 18th St. store dates back to 1932, and by the early 1970s was the only Barnes and Noble store, at the time that the company was revived and started its huge expansion.
With the closing of this store, there now are no longer any bookstores that I’m aware of in New York City that have a large collection of technical math and physics books. Other Barnes and Nobles like the Columbia bookstore have a smattering of such books, and the Strand has a large collection of used and remaindered books, but that’s about it (maybe a reader will tell me about a place I don’t know). At one point in a long-ago golden age there were several bookstores here devoted to scientific and technical books, including Book Scientific and the McGraw-Hill book store.
The same phenomenon is taking place around the country. Cody’s in Berkeley is gone, and if there’s a good technical book store in the Bay area now, I don’t know about it (but haven’t spent much time there in quite a while). Among the places in the US I regularly travel, the only bookstore I can think of that still carries quite a few math and physics books is the Harvard Coop (also some at the MIT outpost). Other countries may be doing somewhat better, with several such bookstores surviving in Paris at least (Gibert Joseph and Eyrolles for instance).
Of course the reason for this is the internet, more specifically Amazon and the online Barnes and Noble. These do have their virtues, and allow fairly quick access to a much more vast array of technical books than any physical bookstore ever could. But the loss of the experience of being able to spend an hour or so browsing through books, with the serendipity of finding something unexpected (something that Amazon’s finely tuned algorithms wouldn’t ever present to you) is a very real one.
RIP New York technical bookstores, I must find a way to get to Paris more often…