If you like books, it was hard not to have mixed feelings about Borders. Now, as the last few stores prepare to close for good, it’s hard not have mixed feelings about its demise. On the one hand, Borders was never good for small, independent bookstores: offering discounts with which they couldn’t compete, buying stock in quantities they couldn’t match, and redefining bookstores as cavernous superstores rather than the intimate spaces they’d long been. On the other hand: books! Rows and rows of them. Man, did they have a lot of books.
That was what most struck me the first time I went to a Borders, when I visited Madison, Wisconsin, as a prospective grad student in 1995. I’d grown up on Waldenbooks, B. Dalton, and other mall stores, only late in my stay in the Dayton area discovering the great independent bookstore Books & Co. (which was subsequently bought by the mega-retailer Books-A-Million, which then drained it of its character and, just recently, shut down its original location). In Borders, I found seemingly any book I could ever want to buy under one roof. It felt like a realized dream, consequences for small bookstores be damned. (Plus they served coffee.)
For better or worse, that’s how I thought of the chain until relatively recently, when its financial woes cut into the shopping experience. Over the past few years, declining book sales forced the chain to redefine its mission and its stock (Stationery! Twilight knickknacks!). The books weren’t always there, and the employees became less helpful. (Last year, I asked a clerk to help me find a copy of True Grit and he helpfully informed me that the movie wasn’t even out yet, much less on DVD.) I won’t miss what Borders became, but for a while, it served as a haven for readers everywhere. I loved that a teenage kid growing up like I did could have easy access to all the books I never saw on shelves when I was a kid. (No, I’m not forgetting about libraries. I grew up loving them, and still do. But I also grew up in a shopping culture, and ended up spending hours hanging out in bookstores during the many, many trips to the malls across America I made as a kid.)
That’s over now. Set to close by the end of September, the last remaining Borders in Chicago, where even the fixtures are for sale, feels faintly post-apocalyptic. (I think I saw someone huddled up in a corner keeping warm by burning a stack of James Patterson novels last time I visited, but that might have been a dream.) Barnes & Noble hangs in there, but its stores never seemed like they were stocked by people who liked books, the way Borders used to be. It was, at its best, the idea of a bookstore writ large. In retrospect, Borders looks like a product of its time. It was big in the era of irrational exuberance, when bigger was never big enough. Then it staggered on as the economic forces that brought it into being fell away. In the end, it became a shambles of its former self. Maybe big wasn’t such a good idea after all.
The future could be smaller. The demise creates some opportunities for independent stores, even in the Kindle era. I now make it a point to buy eBooks via the online storefronts that benefit one of our local retailers (here’s to you, Women And Children First and The Book Cellar) rather than Amazon’s Kindle store or iBooks whenever possible. And just as vinyl has made a serious comeback among music fans who miss the tactile and the analog, I suspect there will always be a market for those who sell books as, well, books. You know, the things with dust covers and smooth pages that fit snugly into the hand, and even smell good to those who love them. Those things.
I hope it works out for the small stores. They are, in every way that counts, a better home for books than the behemoths. But wasn’t it kind of nice that, for a blip in time of about 15 years, stores for book lovers stood shoulder to shoulder with housewares emporia and chain restaurants? The next generation of readers won’t be stumbling into a place that overwhelms them with the sheer volume of books out there to be discovered. They’ll have to be brought to books deliberately—whether they take the form of paper or words on a screen—and find their way from there. That’s probably as it should be, but right now, I’m feeling a little nostalgic for a moment of plentitude and pages without end.