The End of an Era (In Which I Tearfully Buy a Few Books)

Several months ago, Borders Books announced plans to close the large majority of its stores. Five of the six Chicago locations quickly shuttered after liquidating shelves and shelves of CDs (!), stationary, honest-to-goodness books, and sundries. 10% off!  Then 40%.  Then 80%.  Then 90% and a store full of Jeff Foxworthy calendars and Sanjaya autobiographies.

Late last week, the troubled chain threw in the proverbial towel completely.  After four decades in the book-selling biz, they would be no more.  No more Borders Bucks.  No more State Street anchor store.  No more friendly employees there to help me as I searched blindly among the children’s section for birthday presents for my gifted little cousins.

Some saw this as a victory.  The big-box store buckles while many independent stores hang tough! This is You’ve Got Mail in reverse!  Eff you, Borders, and your previously-Kmart-owned ass!  Okay.  But here’s the thing.  Borders itself buckled under the weight of an even bigger foe – Amazon.com.  Its prices were cheaper, its delivery was faster, its reach was global and hey, it’s Amazon!  You can get diapers, a champagne bucket, and flip flops while also picking up the new Nick Hornby.  Sure, those friendly employees weren’t anywhere to be found and you weren’t likely to enjoy just grabbing a cup of Seattle’s Best and browsing for an hour, but with convenience comes modest sacrifice.

But we all know this and I’m not here to comment on the ills of capitalism. I’m here to document my own last day at Borders. I got there a little after 5:00 as the rest of the Loop was getting off work.  The place was packed but the shelves were still well stocked. Many of the fiction shelves were a little out of sorts, alphabetically speaking, but all in all it looked much like a typical Borders, if you could ignore the menacing yellow-and-black signs.

As I navigated the escalators to upper floors, things turned a touch grimmer. The stationary was practically decimated by the non-reading heathens of the world.  A picked-over vibe was more obvious among the speciality sections – music and television, sports, cooking. The store’s soundtrack – lost 90s hits, followed by “Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged in New York” in its entirety, was a somber and fitting background for my shopping experience. I bought Marc Spitz’s Bowie biography, Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman, and Zeitoun by Dave Eggers. 42 bucks.

And the employees continued to work.  Stocking shelves with books that careless bargain-seekers had tossed aside. Herding the seemingly endless check-out line that stretched up and down six aisles into a sense of democratic order.

One middle-aged tourist complimented an employee on the professional handling of such a big crowd and a difficult situation. My bookseller was a college kid who seemed to mean it when he said he was doing “pretty good.”  All maintained patience behind the cash registers despite the building crowd that had to have them all asking “And where were all of you a year ago?”

Where were we, indeed.  Where was I?  The library?  Downloading books for our iPads and Kindles?  Saving money by turning to Amazon?  Shopping independently?  Going to (shiver) Barnes & Noble?  Not bloody reading anymore?  Probably a combination of the above.

And it sucks, but we’ve already seen it happen with the record stores (though I’ll be damned if my book collection winds up packed away in a cardboard box like my CDs are).  As a high school kid and even into my 20s, few things pleased me more than the time spent browsing aimlessly around a book store or record store, even if those stores were large-scale chains.  I never even got to say goodbye to Tower, so maybe I should consider myself lucky that Borders and I got a chance to part on okay terms. I just hope the kids of tomorrow keep reading, however they manage to get their books.

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One thought on “The End of an Era (In Which I Tearfully Buy a Few Books)

  1. There’s something to be said about the browsing aimlessly bit. That’s really what I did at Borders. I rarely bought a book there, but I did go to sit and read and write and generally just hang out and think about stuff.

    So unless these physical locations can start charging for hanging out, there was no future there, unfortunately. Now I have to go to coffee shops or somewhere else where you can get something you can’t order online and get in the mail. We’ll always have coffee, right?

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