It was the mid-90s when I met one of my first loves. And started what would be an almost 15 year romance.
Imagine a time before the internet took over. Before ipods in every bag, and video chatting on every phone. Heck, before chatspeak had ‘evolved’ much beyond shortening phrases like “parents over shoulder” and “away from keyboard”. I was thirteen, the youngest among my group of friends. And we were unabashed geeks. Rather than partying with the band and theater crowds, or attending football games because there was nothing better to do, when we went out we spent Friday nights at the mall: people watching or participating in “Freak Friday”. (This, too, was a time before strict mall dress codes or restrictions on the number of unaccompanied minors allowed to roam free together.)
When the mall closed for the evening, the only stores left open were the Barnes & Noble up the street or the Borders Books across from it. I was the one who wanted to go check out Borders the most, even though they closed an hour earlier than the flashier, shinier, easier for parents to locate B&N.
At first I felt strange being at a bookstore. I was so used to reading books from the local or school Library, ones carefully inspected and approved by my parents. My family didn’t own many books; the few we did were ones my mother had since she was a teenager or educational/growing up books for the younger kids. Libraries were pretty much the only place for me to find something that wasn’t my mother’s Nancy Drews. Or so I thought.
Borders was something else. Special, I’d say. With its soft plush carpets and chairs you could sink into forever, it didn’t even feel like a typical store. When I scanned the shelves, I was so pleased to find the Teen section in a prime location and filling two tall bookcases (that was HUGE back then, I promise!)
I was instantly, madly in love.
Was it how Borders was tucked away from the street, behind a restaurant, all private and mysterious-like? Or the way Borders made me feel invited in, practically asking me to sit in those oh-so-comfy chairs and read a book to decide–no pressure!–if I really wanted it? Or how Borders had exactly what I had been craving and wasn’t afraid to let me come find it on my own?
It made me think about my past experiences with my book providers. What had gone wrong? How had I ended up so enamored, and with a big chain bad boy? I’d always stood up for the underdog, saying people should spend time at their local Libraries if we wanted to see them improve. I’d even wanted some day to find a nice little Indie store to settle into, maybe–if things worked out–even get a job there some day.
Don’t get me wrong. I had a decent time with the Library. I had tried all the classics the summer between 7th and 8th grade. Even had my first all-day exploration of history books with one. But while the Library was consistent and safe, it never truly had what I was looking for: something, anything new! The Library was so old-fashioned that the books aimed at my age consisted of nothing more interesting than The Babysitter’s Club, Fear Street, and The Last Vampire series. (All of which I readily admit to enjoying like crazy when I read them!)
It had hardly crossed my mind that I might buy a book for myself and start my own personal library. Books… in my room? It felt so exciting, so… decadent. Could I really leave behind the out-of-touch ways of the Library that easily?
So. That was the point of no return. I gave in to my desires and started going out to Borders. Once or twice a month maybe. Nothing fast, nothing serious. But completely earnest.
By comparison, I realized the suitable-for-public-consumption Libraries overwhelmed me with rules, paperwork, systems to learn, and lacked well-lit or enjoyable places to research. Plus the aforementioned lack of fulfilling my needs or willingness to experiment with something out of the ordinary.
The few local Independent bookstores? They were like exclusive cliques; I had to know someone who knew of one if I wanted to find them in the first place. And once I got there, I was nervous to admit to being new; or the employees would hover over me like prey until I left. Also, with the books themselves having a perpetual feeling of being old even when they were technically new, I got the distinct impression that the Indies were barely a step up for me from the Library. Yes, the teen section existed as something more than three shelves. But just because Indies had MORE of what I had already had, it didn’t mean that was as far as I wanted to take my textual experiences.
Then there was the B&N, the biggest bad boy of them all, where I felt utterly unwelcome. After all, how could I really like or understand books at my age? And when I was deemed worthy to have around, I felt pushed to do things or buy things I didn’t want or need. Plus, running into many of my parents’ friends there sure didn’t help.
Now, B&N wasn’t always the worst choice once it stopped treating me like a kid and I learned how to say ‘no, that’s not for me’. I had a cousin who worked there, even! And… yes, there were more hot-off-the-presses options than even my Borders.
As the years have gone on, B&N has become more open to my genre needs even as it became more uncomfortable to be around (my cousin told me that B&N was more into quick sales, get ’em in, get ’em out, and don’t leave furniture around that encourages anyone to stick around past that). And the local Library had always been so useful. I know that they’ve revamped their image, gotten the help they needed in the past decade, and really come out of their shell. The few Indie stores, too, that remain are real troopers who deserve a lot better than they got from anyone–including Borders. Indies have always been individuals who were unafraid to be themselves, and I am always happy to hear when an old store I knew is doing well.
But none of these places ever felt like “my” bookstore!
When I was in college and had my first car, I would sneak off to my Borders in between or after classes. Sometimes when I hated a class, I outright skipped and went there instead if I needed a place to get away for a session or two. I couldn’t tell my parents about hating a class I was paying for, but I found comfort and understanding on the second floor of my Borders. I could huddle up in the New Age section without being judged; or ogle the writing books, thinking about a career that was crazy and might never pan out; or I could catch up on graphic novels for a few hours of pure, fictional fun.
Yes, there were times that Borders and I didn’t get along. The rewards card felt silly to me. Why was I being asked to make any show of commitment when I was just a teenager? Didn’t Borders know I loved it, unrelentingly? The rewards card was just for show. Maaaybe once in a while it was useful for me, but I didn’t like to spend big. And, okay, I did feel a sense of loyalty when I could show someone that the only rewards tags I carried were for Borders and the PetSmart. What can I say? It was nice to be wanted. And I would get a little thrill whenever I would see an email from Borders, talking about the latest sales or neat discounts on new books.
Then, I took the plunge. I asked my Borders if they would hire me.
And they said yes!
For three Christmas seasons, I was a Borders Bookseller. I fulfilled my commitments to Borders with delight, glee even! To this day there is very little that is quite as pleasing as helping a customer pick out “just the right book” for them or a friend or a child. And Borders was so good to me: I was always proud to watch the Teen section grow, as it became Young Adult and then split into sub-sections like YA Fantasy and YA Non-Fiction. I loved to see my Borders explore and take chances: the Manga and Graphic Novels sections grew along with the New Age and Occult; suddenly there were Blu-Rays, and board games, and interesting clubs or musicians gathering on any night of the week. I started suggesting during NaNoWriMo that my local chapter even come over to meet up at the cafe, so they could get to know Borders.
I stood by my Borders through thick and thin. When the parent company started lay offs, I stayed stalwart. As upper management made poor decisions that adversely affected the life of my Borders, I had faith.
Friends asked why I didn’t go to the larger B&N or shop online on Amazon or Half.com. They would never understand and that was just fine.
But time goes on, and things cannot stay the same forever. I had to leave my Borders when our lives took different paths. I traveled and started working in entertainment, but always with an eye towards stories. When I was in the area, I would check in on my Borders, to see how it was doing, and what new friends it had made. On my last visit, I walked away sad to see it so anemic; I made my peace, drank in one last sight of it, and knew I would never be able to spend another afternoon together or buy another book from it again.
In the last year I had worked at Borders, I made friends with a young man who felt the exact same way about my Borders as I did. It was, in reality, our Borders. When the parent company made the decision 5 months ago to shut down stores, and our Borders was among those on the block, the friend and I mourned its passing together. He still lived in the area, and brought home one of the legendarily comfortable chairs from the cafe–he said, if he had known how to get it to me, he had considered purchasing one for me too: because I was the only person he knew who would really understand, respect, and appreciate what it meant and where it had come from.
Now, the parent company is closing ALL Borders Bookstores everywhere. Which means I’ll never know if I could have had an exciting fling with the Borders near my new home.
Without places like Borders Bookstores, I worry about there being friendly, inviting, comfortable locations for readers to browse. Where will knitting groups and book clubs meet? Where will the writers averse to the hustle and bustle of coffee shops plop down and start typing? Where will published authors both new and established host readings and interact with booksellers and their local fans?
For a long time, I kept alive a dream of the day I would walk into “my Borders” to find my first book on the Young Adult shelves. I came very close with a publisher once, until their YA line was dropped about a year after I had signed. I kept on trucking, kept on writing, kept thinking about making my Borders proud. Even when I stopped for a while to pursue other dreams for a few years, the love I have for words, writing, books, and Borders was with me.
If video killed the radio star, have portable readers killed the brick-and-mortar bookstore?
I hope not. Because there are a lot of books on the market and yet to come out that I need to hold in my hands and flip through their pages before I buy them. And I hope there’s a place out there for me, without the high-pressure sales tactics, who want me as their customer. Then there’s that dream of being published… it’ll need a new shelf to cradle it.
I need some time before I start looking into a new bookstore love, but I’ll keep my heart open and hopeful. Good-bye, Borders. Know that you’ll always be important to me.
Important! If you’re on Twitter and have a company that’s looking to hire, consider posting on the hashtag #saveborderspeople Cashier work, coffee shops, sandwich shops, other small book stores, stocking shelves, music stores, anything! Even if you just have one position you need filled, there are almost 11,000 people about to be out of jobs in this already insane time of unemployment and under-employment. I miss my co-workers. I wish them the best. And you can help! Thanks!