Borders: A Requiem

All of the recent news about the bookstore chain Borders is bad. Some are predicting it will file for bankruptcy this year. (If that happens, it will give people here in Michigan one more thing to moan about.)

I liked Borders for a long time. Growing up in my hometown of Northlake, IL there were no bookstores. The only places I bought books were the small bookstore chains like Walden and B. Dalton located in the malls of Woodfield or Stratford Square or Yorktown. There was also a small bookstore in downtown Elmhurst for awhile. I can’t remember the name. I do recall buying a number of fantasy and science fiction paperbacks from that store.

It was at stores like those during my teenage years that I purchased books from Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asimov, Terry Brooks, Ian Fleming, and Douglas Adams.

I occasionally used the small, but nice, local library, though I was very bad when it came to returning books on-time. 🙂

I first became aware of Borders when I was between colleges during the summer of 1991. I had dropped out of Northern Illinois University with Grand Plans to attend the University of Hawaii. (It’s a long story. For another time. I never made it to Hawaii.) I’d heard from my mother, I think, about this new big bookstore in Oak Brook, which wasn’t all that far from my parent’s home.

So drove there one weekend afternoon to check out this bookstore located on the west side of Route 83, across from Oak Brook Mall.

I had never seen a bookstore like that before. It was huge. The shelves seemed to have one of everything. The staff was smart and knowledgeable. I felt that reverent glee which comes from being in a place with so many books. I’ve had that same, but stronger, feeling in other bookstores; like the former Midnight Special in Santa Monica, Unabridged and the Seminary Co-op stores in Chicago.

I went through a Kurt Vonnegut phase and an Ayn Rand phase and found what I was looking for at Borders. Later, while I was attending Elmhurst College, I went through a Beats phase. I found On the Road, The First Third, and even Naked Lunch all at that Borders.

For many people in the 90’s and early part of the 00’s, especially owners and devoted patrons of small, independent bookstores, Borders was the enemy (along with Barnes & Noble and Amazon). And I understand why. Many of those small bookstores were put out of business because Big Chain stores like Borders could provide a variety of books and at a steep discount.

For me, Borders was not the enemy. They were liberation and revelation. There were no bookstores like Borders in the suburbs around Northlake at that time. I don’t even remember seeing a bookstore in Franklin Park, Stone Park, or Melrose Park. I could be wrong about there not being any bookstores in those towns. I just don’t remember them from my youth in the 70’s and 80’s. I watched that Borders store outgrow its location and then move across the street to a larger store with more music offerings. I continued to shop there frequently until I moved into the city after college. And then I found Unabridged and Seminary Co-op in addition to the Big Chains.

I can trace the point at which I stopped spending so much time browsing in bookstores (and music stores for that matter): the birth of our first child in 2004. Have you ever tried to “casually browse” any store with a small child? It’s impossible. So my shopping at Amazon or Bookfinder increased. My trips to brick and mortar stores slowed. When I did make the trip to the brick and mortar stores, I found even more of what I had been finding through the years: less variety, prices that were higher than what online retailers offered, and staff who seemed even less informed.

During the most recent Holidays I was in a Borders, the one in OakBrook as a matter of fact. I was looking for a book to give to some friends of ours. I had first thought of getting Scarlett Thomas’ PopCo. But it was not on the shelf. I thought of a few others but none were on the shelf. Eventually, I found Vikram Chandra’s Sacred Games. There was only one copy on the shelf in paperback. (It’s a fantastic, panoramic view of many layers of society in modern day Mumbai, complete with glossary of Hindi slang.)

When I went to pay for the book, the checkout clerk gave me the rote sell about joining some Rewards Club that I endure at many stores these days. Every chain store has a “rewards” program, in which it takes an awful lot of buying to get very miniscule rewards. Why bother? That’s not the sign of a strong company. It’s the sign of a company eager to please but in a way that’s offensive and annoying. I’m there at the checkout counter paying money for the goods you sell. Why annoy me just as I’m about to leave?

I still love to browse bookstores, especially used bookstores. The latter because I can always seem to find a deal on an old or not-so-old gem of a book. Though I admit to having some Ipad Envy, for me books are still a tactile experience.

I miss Borders, or at least the idea that Borders used to represent; every book you could want under one roof sold by an attentive, respectful, and well-informed staff of people. But in this day and age it’s an idea that no longer needs to (or can) be represented on so many corners of so many streets or in so many large storefronts in so many strip malls.

If and when Borders goes out of business, publishers and distributors and people are undoubtedly going to be hurt, whether through nonpayment or the loss of a job. My only hope is that when the dust settles from the ongoing revolution in book publishing and book-selling caused by the Internet and ebooks that a handful of great bookstores will remain standing for those of us who still seek that reverent glee. A glee that cannot be found from browsing online, but can only be gotten from walking around stacks of books and holding a book or two in hand and turning the pages with our fingers.

Even then, I imagine I will still do most of my book-buying online. It’s far too convenient.

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3 thoughts on “Borders: A Requiem

  1. I am so saddened by this post…mostly because I cannot believe how much the world is changing and has changed.
    You bring up many good points, mostly about the prices and all those clubs. (I carry a purse, not because I a woman but because I need someplace to keep all those cards – I can’t remember what phone number I ever put them under!)
    I love going to an actual bookstore and shopping around. There is nothing like really looking at a book to determine if it’s right for you (Plus I love the smell of bookstores). It is sad that Borders could be closing…or that others will.
    But until the last one closes you can still find me, sitting on the floor, flipping through books, making my selections. (Yep, the lady you have to walk around and roll your eyes at…thinking, go sit in a chair lady!!)

  2. Even the little keychain versions of those rewards cards begin to clog up my keychain.

    It’s a shame about Borders. But it’s not the bookstore it used to be. I’ve got some more thoughts on great bookstores, the independent ones, mostly. I hope to have a post up early next week.

    Luckily, where I live now there’s a good local chain called Schuler’s and a good used bookstore called Curious Book Shop. So for now I can still browse close to home. And there’s nothing wrong with sitting on the floor flipping through books.

  3. I miss gathering a bunch of books and magazines, then going to a table for a cup of tea, and spending a good two hours of page flipping. I thought that was the best thing Borders offered, but to one of your points, it’s another thing that doesn’t happen when you have kids.

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