Hard to get sentimental about a big box bookstore, especially when it was partially responsible for forcing independents out of business. And still.
When I moved to LA, Borders was already on the ropes, the one closest to my apartment a ghostly affair, a museum of unloved titles; they were too expensive to ever find a buyer who would want them enough to forgo Super-Saving Shipping on Amazon. You didn’t even feel like staying to browse magazines.
But in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where the chain originated and where I lived for nearly too long, it was one of two things to do if you were out of money or couldn’t stomach another blockbuster Will Ferrell movie at the cineplex.
The first thing was driving out to the mall, undersized so as not to attract people from poor suburbs clustered around that mouth of rotten teeth that was Detroit. Ann Arbor was supposed to be cosmopolitan and diverse, but diversity often meant that one person were wearing a different color Abercrombie and Fitch t-shirt than the next. The real diversity was outsourced to Ypsilanti, Ann Arbor’s poor shadow town.
At the mall, nobody cared if you had red wine in your coffee mug, and students in low-riders and flip-flops didn’t care about the 10-degree weather, and I watched the crowd, burly hoarders most of them, and felt sorry for myself. I have that inclination.
Yet the second thing was Borders, the one downtown, the ur-store, just a grilled panini-throw away from campus. Coffee wasn’t cheap, but cheap enough and I never liked Seattle’s Best, but anyway, nobody was checking if you had a drink sitting in front of your stack of magazines. Most nights I bought an au lait, grabbed an armload of magazines, watched the driving snow outside for a few more moments and then started reading about high performance cars, art news, retrospectives of French auteurs in New York – all the things outside Ann Arbor.
I spent many evenings there – the lighting was attractive enough. I did not go to the independent bookstore (which has since been closed as well), because there were no comfy chairs, the lighting wasn’t nearly as nice, and you were actually expected to buy books. No such thing at Borders. I did buy books there, and not only Harry Potter at midnight, but nobody ever cared how long you spent browsing and reading, you were wrapped safely in that big box anonymity. No human contact necessary.
Borders organized readings. David Sedaris, Chuck Palahniuk, the big hitters that wouldn’t visit the independent store. I never went. What I wanted was just a place busy enough not to feel sad and empty enough so you could find a table in the café. Was I worried about my behavior accelerating Borders death? Of course not. Border seemed untouchable, too big to fail. After all, were you afraid that Walmart would go belly-up?
Barnes and Noble might hang on because of its Nook reader. No such luck for Borders. I’m not sad about a big box dying, but for the damage it does to my memories of Ann Arbor winters. In 15 minutes I could walk from my apartment to that late-evening hangout. As imperfect as it was, it was an anchor, a sign that people still bought books, still drank coffee, and still cared about what was beyond this small college town.
Hell, I even bought my Christmas tree there. Hell, we saved Christmas that year.