When I read the news that Borders would be closing its doors for good, I cried. Not sobbing uncontrollably, but my eyes filled with tears. That might seem like a bit of a strong reaction, but I think it might be more about what this symbolizes. Sometimes I really fear for literacy, and I mean that.
You also never realize how much something meant to you until it’s gone.
Growing up in the middle of nowhere, we didn’t have trendy bookshops. We didn’t have large retail chains like Barnes & Noble, although on special occasions we’d visit the one an hour away. No, we had a shopping center with a small retailer called The Book Store that was hit or miss, and we had a shopping mall with a Waldenbooks, a subsidiary of Borders. So many of my best childhood memories involve books and begging my parents to take me to buy them. It follows, then, that this bookstore in particular has brought me much joy in my life.
You know that age where all you do is hang out at the mall with your friends? I can’t even tell you how many times my friends made fun of me because I went into Walden’s and sat down on the floor in front of the poetry or magazine sections and read. When I got a little older and worked at a coffee shop in the food court, I spent many of my breaks in the bookstore, looking at books.
Borders has been in trouble for a while though, and that beloved bookstore of mine has sat vacant in the mall for a few years now. Waldenbooks were among some of the first stores to close. And anyway, around the same time, we got a brand new shopping center that came complete with a Barnes & Noble.
The first thing I did (and I’m not kidding you, this is just the kind of person I am) when I accepted my first teaching job in Virginia was to immediately find out what and where was the nearest bookstore of sizable proportions. It was a Borders and my first apartment was less than a mile away from it.
Though there were a few neat little used bookstores downtown that had quite a bit of history to them (as many buildings do in Fredericksburg, VA), Borders inevitably had a better selection. It quickly became my spot, and in the first few weeks that I was there, 300+ miles away from everyone I knew and with only about $200 to my name, I comforted myself by hanging out for hours at a time in Borders, reading and exploring.
Remember the D.C. Sniper of 2002? Remember how there were shootings that didn’t all occur on the Beltway? One night at Borders, I picked up a book about it and started reading, only to discover that there were two separate shootings in my new town, and that one had been nearly right across the street from where I was standing.
Eyes wide, I closed the book, hastily returned it to the shelf, and fled the bookstore.
To date, it remains the only time I have ever been freaked out enough to leave a bookstore.
Borders became my Friday night routine. As I made friends, one or two of them would typically join me. We’d get a drink, walk around looking at books and music, run into people we knew, avoid people we knew, and talk. And in those three years that I lived there, Borders was basically a staple of my existence. That time spent with the books and the time spent with my friends helped me get through more than a few tough times.
This was the place where, during my first bout of serious college homesickness during my first year, I found a book written by one of my college professors. This was the place where I fell in love with Truman Capote and bought my first few books about writing when I started missing the learning bubble that I’d had in college. It was the place where I graded papers on a Saturday afternoon when I just couldn’t stand to be in my apartment for another second. It was where I spent hours reading and purchasing piles of books when I was desperate to keep my brain occupied after my grandmother died and I was heartbroken over a guy who is now married to my cousin. It was the place I ran away to at 10 p.m. when I was so frustrated with life that I couldn’t sit still.
Last month, when I was back in town visiting friends, we inevitably ended up at Borders. Roaming around the now-meager selection and condensed shelves, we talked. One friend talked a little bit about her new relationship. Another friend talked a little bit about the vacation she was planning on taking before her sixteen year old son, whom she raised by herself before marrying a great guy who took on the dad responsibilities with aplomb, moved to Florida to live with his biological father. I talked a little bit about my dad’s health problems and a rough spot I seem to have hit with another of my closest friends.
And in between all that, making sure the conversation never got too heavy, were the books.
“Have you read Tina Fey’s book yet? I laughed until it hurt.”
“Yes! How much did you love it when she said….”
“Have you read this? What about that? This book looks terrible, but this one looks pretty good.”
I also did what I’ve taken to doing in all bookstores lately: I locate a volume of Elizabeth Bishop’s poetry and read (several times) her poem “One Art.” It’s been my favorite poem for 10+ years and resonates well with me.
Bookstores have always been fine on my own, but they’re also bonding experiences for me. They’re places where, unlike most other brick and mortar structures, I can almost always find something to talk about. I don’t have to twist my brain into knots trying to come up with something to avoid the silence.
So perhaps my reaction to learning that the chain would close forever was directly linked to my gratitude for all the memories and good times it’s given me over the years, and for all the hard times it’s helped me through. Perhaps my reaction was fear that this will happen to other bookstores and I’ll be out in the rain.
Because, no joke, I have had dreams — nightmares really — where I am standing in an empty bookstore (it looks unsurprisingly like the Fredericksburg Borders) with a stack of my books. All of the vacant shelves are pushed against the walls. The open space has been filled with lots of tables and chairs, and everyone sits there, keeping to themselves, staring vacantly at their e-readers.