Quite a while ago I was dismayed to hear that the Borders bookstore chain was closing down multiple stores and possibly going out of business altogether. I was deeply saddened by this, as in my mind, any time that a place that sells books closes down is a somber moment. The course of life, however, put the story out of my mind for a while; there's a Barnes & Noble closer to my house than the nearest Borders and an independent bookstore just around the corner. I tucked away the thought of the closing store in the portion of my mind reserved for the "that's a shame, but it can't be helped" stories, where it sat, slowly gathering mental dust.
That is, until I learned that the Borders closest to me--one to which I regularly head--was being closed, as was every Borders across the nation.
I realized that I desperately wanted to head back to the store one last time before it closed, considering I've been shopping there since I was a young child. Thankfully, I managed to avoid my usual procrastination and I visited the store mere days before it closed for good. While I'm unimaginably glad I did so, the trip left an impression on me that I'll never forget. I walked into the store and was immediately blown away by the bareness of it. Where I had always remembered shelves of books reaching up to the ceiling, empty wooden shelf frames stood instead (and in my mind, there is a spectacularly large gap between the meaning of a "full bookshelf" and, though it is still a bookshelf, the "empty frame" of one. I'll get to that in a bit). Tables, previously used to showcase the latest or most popular books, now held "Sold!" or "Ask an associate about purchase" signs.
I wandered around a bit, becoming sadder by the step as I looked through the places that held so many memories. I saw the children's section, which had seemed so much larger when I was smaller; I looked over the shelves of regularly sized sci-fi paperbacks I'd thumbed through many times, often looking for an Asimov novel or Adams comedy; I saw the footprint of the technology section to which I'd made beelines many times upon entering the store, now only consisting of a sign bluntly stating "All technology books are sold out--sorry!". I can't remember if there was a smiley face drawn after the proclamation, but if so I doubt it would have eased the sorrow specifically rooted in this section. I even strolled through the various areas I'd never really had the chance to peruse before--the travel section being a notable example, where I picked up Stephen Fry's excellent Stephen Fry in America (yeah, bet you didn't expect that title, did you?)--regretting that I hadn't done so sooner.
The more I explored the now-near-barren store, the more I realized that it wasn't just the sights and memories that were clouding the atmosphere. I wasn't by far the only person in the store, and there was an incredibly pervasive air of sheer depression and helplessness. It was stunningly close to the environment of a funeral--there was a sense that a something great had been lost, that an era was rapidly coming to a close, and that we were all here sharing stories of a friend and soon we'd have to head back our own ways. Visiting the lower level brought a fresh round of nostalgia. Seeing the small bar/restaurant and stools all either disassembled, sold, or both, seeing the empty rows of shelves once stocked with music now bare, and seeing the few non-book-related trinkets normally sold now resting in picked-over piles was disheartening.
Yet the air of bitterness wasn't just limited to the shoppers. While checking out with the inexcusably large stack of books I'd picked up--apparently I'm rather dangerous with money in a place selling reduced-price books--the cashiers were, I found, in the same mood. Jokes were still being thrown back and forth occasionally, but there was the sad undercurrent that marked them as only superficial.
Before leaving the store I talked to a sales associate and convinced them to sell me a basket. It's a small and odd token I know but it's got a lot of meaning behind it.
This isn't even the last time I've suffered through--and yes, before you ask, suffered is the absolutely correct word--a bookstore closing. The independent bookshop I mentioned earlier? A couple of years ago it was part of a small, local chain around the city. The miserable excuse for a landlord who owned several of the buildings in which the shops were located decided his pockets weren't stuffed enough, though, and long story short, the chain had to break up. The store around the corner from me stayed open and (thankfully) basically just changed its name and brand. Same staff, same environment, different logo. The other store, slightly further away, closed down for good. It's still empty, a glaring reminder every time I pass. The night it shut down I stopped by hoping to simply take a walk around and, in essence, pay my respects. It had already closed for the day, though, with the former staff standing around having a bit of a going-away party.
What is it about bookstores that leaves such an empty feeling when they leave? Walking around a soon-to-be-not-a-bookshop gives the feeling of meeting with a someone who is no longer whole. It's like meeting with an old friend just before they pass, sharing memories and stories of the good and the bad. It's not just a personal relationship, though; it's a communal one. Think about it for a moment and you'll realize that if you go to any bookstore you're immediately accepted into a group of people with whom you share the experience of simply being there. Walking around, there was a mutual feeling of "sad, isn't it" that goes unspoken between shoppers and can be expressed with a simple glance. It's the same feeling as watching a restaurant to which you've gone for years, along with a regular crowd, being torn down or readied for demolition.
So why, may you ask, have I waited so long to write this up? Well, a while ago, I read of the original Borders, in Ann Arbor, Michigan, closing. It wasn't the final store that would be closing, but it was the original store that had started the chain.
I'd initially closed this post with a short rant about ebooks, but in retrospect that's unnecessary. The point here is to share what it was like walking around the store, not to go give a wrathful sermon against anything that isn't written on paper; some far more eloquent and sensible than I have already done so quite adequately enough.
We'll miss you Borders. Thanks for the memories.