Can Bookstores be Saved?

I like bookstores. I savor being in a place with book-lined walls. I love the covers, the titles, the blurbs. Some bookstores have jazz playing in the background. Some have coffeeshops. I like reading some pages of a magazine I don’t usually read, and deciding whether to buy it or even to subscribe. I like author signings and readings.

I am therefore distressed at the closing of Borders Books.. There are ironies in this story, since Borders (based in my home, Ann Arbor), pioneered the concept of the book superstore, putting many independent bookstores out of business. It in turn was driven into bankruptcy in part by the rise of the digital book, and its inability to adapt to the new technology in the way that Amazon and Barnes and Noble have. The story I heard about the superstore is that one of the Borders brothers took a computer class in the 1970s and realized that inventory could be computerized. Bookstores used to order 5 copies of each new book they wanted to carry, which limited the actual number of titles on their shelves, say to 20,000 in a big store. By ordering just one copy of each book, and reordering when that copy sold (made possible by tracking sales via computer), Borders could have 100,000 discrete titles. The flagship store in Ann Arbor had 160,000, I think.

My people, Americans, are frankly not generally big book readers. Apparently once they get out of college, a lot of them do not read much for pleasure. Airplane travelers, at least, used to read, to pass the time on planes. But now you see them watching movies on tidy little DVD players, and some airlines are even making the internet available on flights, so that people read and reply to work email instead of relaxing with a novel. Of course, by blogging I am probably guilty of undermining book reading. A daily essay of 800 words is easier to fit into most people’s schedule than even part of 300-page book.

I admire the people in Barcelona for their Sant Jordi (St. George) commemoration, every year on April 23. In honor of St. George, lovers exchange a book and a rose with one another. I read in La Vanguardia that 50 percent of all books sold annually in Catalonia are sold on Sant Jordi Day. What a wonderful idea, instead of further enriching that awful de Beers monopoly on hardened carbon crystals, to give a book to express one’s love and passion. And a rose. I even tried to promote April 23 a la Barcelone, but didn’t have many takers. The advantage of tying books to romance is obvious, and physical books would make better gifts, helping that medium survive. Oh, well.

Unlike some book lovers, I rather enjoy digital books, and often read on my iPhone or iPad (the advantage of Kindle or other book readers on my iPhone is that I usually have it with me. I have bad eyesight, but find that if I set down the brightness from factory settings and set up the size of the font, I can read perfectly comfortably on the smaller machine). One advantage of digital books is that they can be downloaded anywhere. I was traveling not so long ago in Andalucia and wanted to read about its history. I had access to books via Kindle etc. that I could never have actually found in Seville, e.g.

As an author, I was proud that my recent book, Engaging the Muslim World, was for a while the best-selling digital book for the American division of Palgrave Macmillan, presumably because my blog readers are unusually wired.

Much as I like bookstores, they have disadvantages for publishers and authors because of the way the business works. Typically the bookstores don’t have to pay for the book until they sell it, and if they don’t sell it the can send it back. Sometimes the books are damaged when returned. In contrast, when someone buys a digital book, the publisher gets paid right then and there. Digital publishing is therefore potentially good for publishers and authors, disastrous for bookstores.

But I would deeply regret the loss of places where exemplars of printed books can be browsed, paged, and sniffed at (new books smell good). Although Kindle lets you download a sample of a digital book, it isn’t the same as being able to browse. And bookstores are centers for a community, of readers, which are now in danger of being lost.

What I can’t understand is why bookstores don’t just develop an app. Why can’t you have a physical, printed book tagged in a way that you can take a photo of the zebra code with an iPhone or Android smartphone (in the same way you can use a Paypal app to photograph a check for deposit). The app. would download the book from a server, and the price would include a fee for the bookstore providing the physical copy for examination. In this way, you could still buy a digital book from a bookstore in a way, or at least remunerate the bookstore for having books to examine in hard copy. I can’t understand why such a system could not inexpensively be implemented by independent and specialty bookstores as well as by superstores. Obviously, readers might pay an extra dollar or so for a book bought this way as opposed to those downloaded directly from, e.g., Amazon. But that would be a small price to pay for the survival of bookstores, and it is more fun to make on-the-spot book purchases after you leaf through the book, than it is to do purely digital shopping on the web. If the idea is feasible, the developers may have it gratis. I just want my bookstores back.

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41 Responses

  1. Me too, Juan! (I want my bookstores back, & like your ideas, & share your tastes.) It was a joy this morning to open your site, as I do each day, & find the subject was ……….. bookstores!

  2. Like you, I really enjoy browsing through my favorite bookstore once in a while and cannot really imagine a virtual version that would be able to replace this in a satisfactory way. Your idea of incorporating digital sales to real-life bookstores is interesting, but the added charge might discourage people from buying the book there. Just like some people go to local electronics stores to ask questions about appliances / cameras / laptops etc. but actually buying it on amazon due to a cheaper price.

    Also, I’m not sure about other countries but at least in Germany, a surcharge on the book would not be possible, as we have a fixed book-price here throughout the whole country. A new copy of a single book must be sold at the same price in every store, online or offline. This was introduced to avoid price wars and protect the smaller bookstores at least to an extent. This model may actually be worth considering for other countries, as you really have no reason to NOT buy a book at the store right when you are there, be it a digital copy or a “real” one.

    • Thanks so much for your informative comment, Jennifer. The question would be how the book store got a cut of the book proceeds if you download it in their store. In Germany, presumably the zebra code could be designed in such a way as to direct a small profit to the bookstore, just as they get a take when you buy a physical book. Or maybe the bookstores could offer free wifi and bring up an order page so that you download from their server. Also, I don’t think a small ‘exemplar fee’ off a zebra code would be illegal even in Germany, since you’re not paying more for the book, you’re paying for the convenience of having a codex exemplar to examine before purchase.

    • In July 2001, the Gesetz über Preisnachlässe (Discount and free gift law) of 25 November 1933, which banned all retail discounts of more than 3% in Germany, was finally repealed in all retail sales with the sole exception of the book trade. I believe the German tradition of consumer cooperatives is a more rational model than this National Socialist legislation, which inflates the prices paid by individual book buyers, without regulating the concessions which jobbers and chain stores extract from publishers.

  3. I detect a kindred soul, Professor Cole. I, too, love books and book stores. Unlike you, however, I doubt that I will ever migrate to kindles and nooks; their cold hard screen does not allow one to make notes in the margins, as I have done all my life when coming across interesting and new ideas, or new takes on old ideas.

    There were certain authors that set my imagination on fire when I was young. And while I enjoy reading many of today’s authors, I still like to read Lawrence Durrell’s “Alexandria Quartet” every five years or so. Durrell’s evocation of Alexandria in the 1930s, with its cosmopolitan mix of Arabs, Greeks, Jews, Armenians, and a half dozen others; and his superb writing (He was a painter with words!) enthralled me. In fact, it was through reading Durrell that I discovered the Greek Poet Constantine Cavafy. Nikos Kazantzakis, the great author from Crete (“The Last Temptation of Christ,” “Report to Greco,” “Zorba the Greek”) was another. Somerset Maugham’s short stories are absolute gems. Graham Greene, Hemingway, and others. And those are just writers of fiction. There is the whole panoply of non-fiction: history, politics, political-economy. I cannot imagine I would have the same feeling of closeness to those authors and their works without the tactile pleasure of reading actual, physical books, rather than reading a screen.

    Which brings me to the best movie I have seen in a long time: Woody Allen’s new release entitled “Midnight in Paris.” Briefly, it is about a present-day fellow who treasures the idea of literary Paris in the 1920s. He goes to Paris with his philistine fiancee and her equally philistine parents, and the story takes off. Very good movie. But I should quit now before I go too far afield here.

    • I’m a young guy, (27) but I’ve been in love with books for 25 years. When I was kid, as soon as I was old enough be trusted to walk a few blocks on my own, the local bookstores and the library became my daycare center. I do share quite a few of your sentiments regarding actual books vs. e-readers, but I do respectfully disagree with some you points.

      I think quite a bit of what we book-readers see as advantages of paper books are just nostalgia and people trying to convince themselves that what they do out of habit and necessity are actually done by choice or design. For instance, I love the feel of a good heavy book in my hands, and also that musty smell of old paper. Both of these things could be seen as major inconveniences or even deal breakers for those with physical disabilities or severe allergies to mold.

      As far as note taking is concerned, I think this is actually one of the great advantages of the electronic form. I believe most of the current E-readers allow you to do something similar to writing notes in the margin, and the future possibilities here are very exciting. Imagine if your e-reader (or the home system it is connected to) was able to read your current book in time with you, all the while comparing the new text with your old notes, and then pointing out how the new material confirms or contradicts your theories, or even pointing towards the works or website of someone who has had similar thoughts about any particular book.

      For those who are worried about the total disappearance of bookstores, you still have awhile before armageddon. I think both libraries and certain types of independent bookstores (especially used & rare specialist shops) will still exist as repositories of paper books for quite a ways into the future. The key to longevity here will be that these places will have to position themselves as areas for local cultural exchange, with libraries doubling as community centers and book-stores acting as modern day coffee-houses, where local folks can go to get a cup of joe and some good old intellectual exchange.

      On a side note, you are not the first person to recommend both Midnight in Paris and Nikos Kazantzakis. I think I will have to ceck both of them out.

  4. Many people will miss Borders. From an article I read some time ago, some of Borders difficuly is because Borders did not offer digital books, as Barnes and Noble does.

    It is an unhappy day for the people who will lose their jobs who work for Borders (11,000 across the country). Michigan has had enough of job loss.

  5. i think you should try to advance the Saint George Day again. i’m w/ you, and hopefully some of the other people who are distressed by the Border’s closing will be too.

  6. As a graduate of UM (1975), I remember when Borders was a simple little bookstore on State St. I agree this is sad (not least of all because we had stock in the company; should have gotten out when it started crashing).

  7. Let’s hope Nicola’s Books in Ann Arbor’s Westgate Mall survives! I love browsing there.

  8. Borders’ slow and ineffectual expansion into online bookselling had more to do with it, and that wasn’t their only problem. They were already in trouble when digital books hit the takeoff point.

  9. My nearest Borders stands between work and home, making it a convenient stop along a regular drive. I’m gonna miss it. But in certain ways, it has been gone since its second or third year. When it opened, it had a terrific abundance of books–all of Faulkner, lots of classic poetry, two whole shelves of chess books. Books that sold slowly were not reordered; sections that catered to a small group of devotees began to whither. My visits have grown less frequent. The last time that I bought a single chess book there, I reduced the inventory by 50%. I stopped browsing the section with Faulkner when it went below six books. In truth, Amazon offers a better browsing experience (except that the smell is less pleasant).

    The independent bookstore in my city remains open. It is not along a regular route, and so must be created as a destination for travel–a destination involving dealing with the traffic and parking of downtown. It, too, seems a shadow of what it was five years ago.

    You are wise, Juan Cole, in observing how the digital revolution has had a deleterious effect not only upon our buying practices, but also upon reading habits. An app for a brick and mortar bookstore will slow the decline, but it will not reverse the trend away from books. We live in bleak times; perhaps the end of civilization itself calls us as witnesses.

  10. I also read the article on Borders with dismay, as I have the same concern about physical book stores disappearing. I love to be in them. It reminds me of how I feel about them and while I am in them. It also reminds me of the times I remember fondly of being with my father going to old book stores in downtown NYC and browsing them. It gave me a warm feeling I still remember. I hope these stores never disappear.

  11. I heard a piece on NPR about how comic book stores are staying relevant by working with digital comic book distributors. Apparently, you have to go into a comic book store and buy a code in order to download the latest edition of whatever comic book series you are into.

    Basically it is what you described above.

  12. I fear that the high overheads of real live bricks-N-mortar might make not make you idea cheap enough, but someone should at least run the numbers.

    As far as giving the bookstore a cut of the profits, you could also track the customers in the store, see what they pick up, see what they walk near (I know, privacy, sigh). If they buy any of those books online in the next day/week (sliding scale with time), the “bookstore” gets a cut. Obviously, in-store buying gets the biggest cut.

  13. Some time in the future, could the term “book” become just an abstract notion of a large retrievable text/graphics file sitting on server somewhere on the Internet, and the author an equally abstract originator of these files?

    Blogs and on-line news media conjure up a notion of predictable content by their viewers, but a book is sort of a mystery that one must actually read to know what’s in it. I don’t know if “downloading a large text/graphics file” will ever have the allure of “grabbing a book”, but (not too) future generations will find out.

  14. I see pretty grim sign in bookstores demise under the pressure of etrade. Up till now, we thought about Internet as new railroads, highways and telegraph.

    However, neither railroads nor highways were built for entertainment and propaganda purposes. Transporting theater and circus groups was not their main purpose! Precious telegraph bandwidth was used mostly for business and military purposes, it was not wasted on creating social networks with info like what somebody ate for breakfast.

    Now technical and strictly informational/educational texts make just a small fraction of what we find in the US bookstores. Most of the items are pure entertainment and there is a heavy flow of crude propaganda like politicians’ “books”.

    Now all this moves to Internet. Unfortunately, we don’t see much of job creation by Amazon, but we certainly see significant job loss and community deterioration caused by
    the demise of Borders.

  15. Technically, the app is simple. Then problem is that apple and amazon have near exclusive rights to download books, so their cooperation is required.

    Paging Steve Jobs… How about a deal with independent bookstores? Users enter theirmfavorite bookstore’s ID, and themstore gets a dollar?

  16. Juan,
    I agree with you. I am a booklover, and have been all my life. I was anti-ebooks and turned down my kids and grandkids when they wanted to buy me a Kindle for my birthday. Then I got an Ipad and gave ebooks another try. As they say, my life changed! I enjoy having my library with me and being able to download topics that intrest me “on the fly.” I still spend a lot of time in bookstores browsing for new titles. I feel guilty about this and would gladly pay an added stipend for this ability.

  17. Well if you are buying your books from web-based book stores only like Amazon, and avoiding to pay taxes to your local economy then that this is what you get.

    • I guess I’m also driving the yacht and private jet manufacturies out of business, then? Airlines are forced to fly their first class seats empty because I always go coach?

      Come on, Mr. Yo! Price is a concern for many of us, particularly as regards hardbacks. I agree that the playing field should probably be leveled with a more equitable gross receipts tax policy. But I don’t buy online to avoid the NMGRT, I tend to go to Amazon because it’s mucho dollars less than the local Page One – and has better selection.

  18. I, too, am a a great book lover and want to make note of one sentence in your article. Borders “pioneered the concept of the book superstore, putting many independent bookstores out of business.” I have to say that while I find the loss of Borders tragic, I more greatly mourned the loss of these great and important independent bookstores. But from here, let’s at least keep reading America! Thanks.

  19. This is such a bizarre post, I had to check the date to confirm it wasn’t ten years old. Here in Berkeley, we have seen many of our favorite book spots go the way of the Internet. I’m always puzzled by the nostalgia of tactility. Especially by an educated crowd. I enjoy “browsing” online now, and I can’t imagine how the two venues can be compared? Surely no one can think that the corner book store can compete with the information and ability to find a dialog on any subject online?

  20. I share your lament. After having spent almost a lifetime as a grad student in Ann Arbor, when I returned for a visit in 2009, my first thought was to head down to Shaman Drum the venerable local academic bookstore … I was really sad to find out that it had closed down.
    And now Borders!… the entity that presumably contributed to the demise of the local book store, is dying too.
    Perhaps if book stores offered the book & its digital copy, (for perhaps a $ more than the cost of the book) … book stores could still survive. I for one wish I had electronic copies of books I own, and hard copies of e-books.

  21. Bookstores will be a loss to many people…how about a combination of fresh coffee, and old (real books) brought to the bookstore for exchange among visitors. I hate to abandon my old books..but have to sometimes. People who love books should meet somewhere to share the appreciation they all have for this latest fading treasure of old times. cheers, rmdw

  22. Dr. Cole,
    I have tremendous respect for you, and I deeply feel the problem you are expressing. But you are describing the value of Border’s in terms of the ways it functions like a privatized library. I am seriously concerned that in both your post and in the discussion around the closing of Borders, libraries are invisible. Libraries allow for far greater intellectual freedom compared to mega bookstores, provide essentially the same service for no direct cost and far lower cost to the community.

  23. Your idea wouldn’t work for the simple fact that people are very price sensitive so any attempt to add to the price of a digital book will fail, unless people do it as a “donation” which is not a solid business foundation.

    So if I see the book on the Borders app for $20 (say including $2 for borders), I would use my smartphone to go to Amazon and download the exact same book for $18. I also suspect that the donation for a physical store would have to be much larger to support real estate and a staff of employees.

    Yes, record stores, video stores, book stores and possibly newspapers are going to be things of the past. Kind of hard to even imagine growing up without a record or a book store to go to but this is a new world. People will find other pastimes.

  24. What I would love to see is a bookstore where you go in, browse the books there, and then have the option to instantly purchase an ebook version of it (a commission can go to the bookstore, etc). I’ve had the chance to look it over in my hands to see if I’d like it, but I don’t have the additional weight & bookshelf space taken out if I don’t wish a hardcopy.

    There’s also something to be said for sitting down with a book for a bit.

  25. thanks Juan. I love book stores too. Grew up in small book stores in Boulder and Dayton and Yellow springs Ohio. Walking down the aisles picking up a book that I would not normally look at or on a topic far from my interest. Quiet surroundings, others doing the same. Not like normal shopping. Looking for knowledge, stimulating an interest, distractions, mystery.

    Especially love old book stores where it is a bit musty, old ragged covers..feel like you are stepping into history.

    Was just in the Trident Book Store on Pearl Street in Boulder. Great books great prices

    Prof Cole/others have you read this?
    link to

    CIA veteran: Israel to attack Iran in fall
    The Israeli security establishment is increasingly worried by Netanyahu’s bellicose stance towards Iran.
    A longtime CIA officer who spent 21 years in the Middle East is predicting that Israel will bomb Iran in the fall, dragging the United States into another major war and endangering US military and civilian personnel (and other interests) throughout the Middle East and beyond.

    Earlier this week, Robert Baer appeared on the provocative KPFK Los Angeles show Background Briefing, hosted by Ian Masters. It was there that he predicted that Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is likely to ignite a war with Iran in the very near future.

    Robert Baer has had a storied career, including a stint in Iraq in the 1990s where he organised opposition to Saddam Hussein. (He was recalled after being accused of trying to organise Saddam’s assassination.) Upon his retirement, he received a top decoration for meritorious service.

  26. There would be retaliation against western forces in Afghanistan and Iraq. Israel would have to go through Iraqi airspace for Israel to strike by air and Iraq’s air space is controlled by the United States. The other way is to use submarines built by Germany would be used to launch curse missiles, which would cause problems with Israel – German relations. Or, Israel would have to go through Saudi air space and this would cause and open fight between Saudi Arabia and Iran, same thing would happen if they tried to launch from the Red Sea, the other option is a launch from the Persian Gulf.

    At any rate, if a strike was done, with the weapon systems Israel currently has, it would seem NATO (US) carried out the strike. Overall, it would be an unwise decision to attack Iran. American should stronly discourage this action,it will cause U.S. troops their lives.

  27. Electronic books are fabulously handy, indeterminably unstable and hence, unsustainable. Paper rots, but only slowly, whereas electronic storage disappears …. in a flash.

    Besides, books, coffee, storytelling, community are all impossible or lesserly (sic) compatible with electronics.

  28. Here’s an app someone needs to write: Individual news profiles, culled from multiple news sources, with microfees paid to those sources, printed on demand when the individual scans his pcd across the instant newspaper printer. Fees vary according to how much advertising is permitted according to the profile.

    This way, you can get your Times, Guardian, Informed Comment and FDL along with only the parts of the WSJ that don’t make you puke. I’m truly sorry for that last remark. Very sorry. So is my son James. We are both sorry. We apologize. YOU SOB – Get that pie out of my face! I’m truly sorry.

    • [Charlie Sheen mode on]

      No, I am not crazy.

      (The snarky fake html tags [Rupert Murdoch mode on] and [Rupert Murdoch mode off] did not appear ’cause I used angle brackets, which real html tags use, instead of square brackets.)

      [Charlie Sheen mode off]

  29. When Gutenberg first printed books I am sure there were many who saw this as a shames. Compared with books individually written and illustrated by scribes, the mass produced and identical books were not as aesthetically pleasing and many skilled artisans would have lost their jobs.

    Printing lowered the price of books, making them readily available to many more people. I suspect those bemoaning the loss of book stores live in larger towns and cities as most of the world does not have access to such a store. Now everyone virtually everywhere has access to books which used to be available only to the urban middle class.

    After years of books piling up in my house, most have gone to a charity book stall. I use an ereader for nearly all my reading and with the ability to change font size and obtain nearly every book I want, I don’t miss the piles of paper at all.

  30. I too lament losing a provider of a commodity that I, and many of this blogs readers hold dear, books; however, let us be realistic about the quality of Borders selection, their absolute incompetence in membership club discounts, their horrific website, their inability to understand the looming peril they faced from a 90s retailer who grew a logistics system for nearly a decade long (unprofitable at the time, although Borders executives should have understood the foreboding technological and logistical inferiority that ultimately surmounted their big box little content operation.

    Also, for those bibliophiles who talk about the paper in their hands being vital to their experience… I urge you to find a pre-1900 book that uses real paper not this farce of a pulp we have today. Long live the real books: those before stab sewing and glued-up spines with no signatures sewn!

    Perhaps one of the main indicators of the slide of boarders can be located in the departure of many of their buying agents. As anyone who now goes to a borders will see (unless in store one) they buy books that children should not read, but rather proofread!

  31. Why not an updated bookstore which consists of many “terminals” (for want of a better word) where people could search for books of interest, browse the list and the full contents of each on the screen, and purchase those that interest them? Options would include an e-download or hardcopy.

    The store could have literally millions of titles, but most space would be taken up by the terminals, located with carrels and comfortable chairs. You’d still get the too-loud annoying ambient muzak that Dr. Cole seems to enjoy so much, and be able to sip your latte as you read. Extra space would still be taken up with ads and announcements of sales.

    The only thing missing would be the blocks of bound paper – at least, until checkout.

  32. Fifteen years ago in our city of Santa Barbara we had the Earthling Bookstore. With a central fireplace surrounded by couches and chairs, and live jazz or bluegrass every few days, it was heaven on earth. Then Borders and B&N simultaneously established stores within a few blocks and the Earthling died.
    Now Borders and B&N have gone bye-bye and our world-class tourist Mecca and shopping district, Lower State Street, has not a sinthat book-store. Our local culture has been whip-sawed and sterilized.

  33. Dr. Cole,
    One other thing to remember is that, and another commenter sort of alluded to this. Amazon is currently in the midst of a giant lobbying and legal gauntlet to insure that US government policy continues to encourage consumers to buy books from online by exempting online sales from taxation. So it is not just an issue that the amazon model is superior at delivering the same book at a lower cost (that may or may not be true, I have no idea), but the government wants you to buy from amazon and not borders or joes books and coffee.

  34. While I spent some hours in Borders in their corners and cafes reading books (under their stock overly bright and cold flourescent lights), I find it hard to mourn the company’s demise or consider it a serious part of the discussion about book reading. Borders as a company has been in trouble for a very long time. So bad and long, in fact, that it had to be saved by Kmart of all companies in 1992. Moreover, Borders creation in the 1970s was not only a direct attack on the independents, it was well known for its “hip” anti-unionism. Compare that to the independents, whose loss has had far more substantial repercussions, and some of whom were unionized, especially in bigger cities and more liberal college towns.

    I think the story of physical reading material vs eBooks and such is far from being determined. That is, I’m not convinced that those who accept, promote and profit from technological determinism will hold sway. Consider all the locations people read, and whether or not carrying around a Kindle, tablet or similar would be appropriate, let alone something everyone who reads will want to carry around. Even the companies selling e-textbooks as a way to cut through educational price gouging haven’t solved the issues of what real students do – underline, make marginal notes, etc. And for every individual who likes Kindle or similar, there are many more that still want the real thing in hand. In a different sense, this discussion reminds me a bit of what I call the Blackberry worldview problem: unlike a written planner in which one views their schedule in week chunks, i.e., overview and a broader picture are inherent, Blackberrys and similar focus on a day by day view of one’s doings. eBook readers also force and reinforce a narrow view of things, i.e. page by page. The implications of that are substantial, none of which strike me as much good.

  35. Borders was Ann Arbor’s sweetest little bookstore -back when it was a little bookstore. Two short stories tall. Three novellas wide. Half a dozen coffee table editions deep. Practically the entire staff seemed comprised of otherwise unemployable PhD.s. Borders was bought because it was a step ahead in inventory control but after KMart sank its fangs into Borders’ neck Borders was thereafter unaccountably, maddeningly, always a step behind.

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