On Wednesday Borders surprised almost no one by filing for bankruptcy. Authors are pissed because the company has not yet paid for the books it sold over the Christmas period. Readers are pissed because another of their local bookstores has bitten the dust.
As a reader it may seem strange that I’ve always had a strong distaste for bookstores. I hate that bookstores have “literature” sections that are a few shelves long, because most of what they sell is not literature. It’s celebrity biographies, books to accompany fad TV shows, and imitations of imitations. For me, they were a necessary evil – a place to visit to sift through the crap and find what you need.
In Dundee, during my university years, we had a handful of bookstores in the town centre, and several littered throughout the West End – the university district. Even by my third year, well before the world economy shat the bed, Dundee’s bookstores were in trouble. They began closing and reopening at smaller premises, with selections more focused on commercial books. The independent stores closed altogether.
I was lucky in my final years of university to find a place called “The Recycling Centre” where used books were 10p ($0.15) each, regardless of their actual worth. It was not a bookstore, it was a warehouse that sold things taken from people who’d died, but they had literally thousands of books. They were the books that had stood the test of time, sitting on shelves for decades.
As a literature student, there were many books I had no choice but to purchase. Most of these were pieces of literature that I could find on eBay or Amazon or at The Recycling Centre, and so I never used the university’s little bookstore. Nobody did. Even for our big textbooks that the store was required to sell, we either shared, bought second hand or went online. The little store moved from location to location to location. Once it was even located in a Portacabin, too small for students to enter.
The big town centre bookstores continued to shift locations and focus on crappier and crappier stock. They were always unwelcoming, too. Security guards would actually say clichéd things like, “This ain’t a library, mate,” if you spent too much time choosing a book. It was more fun to stay at home and use the internet.
Across town we had Borders. Borders was the big, brash American newcomer, but it was hip and cool, very different from the town centre stores. It was on the edge of town, next to an underground nightclub. It stocked literary journals and graphic novels, indie press books and hip magazines no one had ever heard of. They allowed author readings and book signings and let people put posters in the windows.
Borders was well known because of the building that was restored and moved to house it. It was gorgeous; a relic from Dundee’s maritime past. (It’s rare for this city of architectural rape to experience positive change.) It also heavily promoted local authors and small presses, and had huge sections about Dundonian history.
For me, the best thing about Borders was the selection. Rather than focusing on commercial shit (sorry to sound like a pretentious hipster) they actually stocked literature. One could walk around the store and find anything. They had everything written by Hunter S. Thompson and William S. Burroughs, along with lesser known biographies and criticism. They had the old classics, yes, but they also had hip new books. Borders helped educate me in literature.
In between the aisles there were big comfortable armchairs where you could sit and read. No one would say, “Buy it or get out.” You could stay there all day. Upstairs was the obligatory Starbucks, and the staff were cool with you taking books in to read with your coffee.
I’ve always disliked shopping but Borders was a hobby during my final year of university. It was a long walk to get there, but it was worth it. My friends and I would spend hours looking at books. I have some great memories of time spent there.
I was legitimately sad when my parents e-mailed me to let me know that it had closed down. That was a long time ago. Last summer I returned to Scotland for a month and saw it myself – the beautiful old building still stood, dark and empty. A terrible waste.
So I was one of the few who was surprised when on Wednesday I learned that Borders had filed for bankruptcy, but only because I thought they were already dead. I’d been living in a world without Borders for more than a year.