The first time I set foot into a Borders store was in Washington, D.C., in the spring of 1997. My roommates and I had made the crazy decision to drive to New York City for Spring Break. Since we were all undergraduates at the University of West Florida in Pensacola, that meant we’d be in the car for a little over 20 hours. These were the days before Google Maps or Mapquest, so we were armed only with the overconfidence of youth and a road atlas. We crashed on couches up and down the east coast on our sojourn. We’d stopped in D.C. to visit a friend who was attending Georgetown.
To me, then, Borders was a Mecca containing everything I valued in life: good books, good music, and good coffee. I distinctly remember wandering the aisles, dumbstruck at the sheer number of books. I’d been in only one big-box bookstore, a ratty Booksamillion on Davis Highway in Pensacola. Borders trumped Booksamillion by far. When I found the poetry section in Borders, I nearly fell to my knees. I’d never seen so many volumes of poetry for sale in one place. I think I purchased a copy of Jim Morrison’s The Lords and the New Creatures, a choice that reveals a lot about me back then—and a choice that, frankly, I’d like to forget. Morrison is a terrible poet, but I’m not writing about him.
Rather, I’m interested how Borders filled a niche for me—and maybe it filled a niche for the readers in our country back then. It’s hard for me to imagine a time before Amazon and Powell’s and AbeBooks, but in college, I didn’t have access to these websites. No one else did, either. Visiting a Borders was visiting a place that shared your obsessions. You could meet fellow readers, talk about books in the coffee café, or pick up the latest album. What Borders offered me then seems quaint and old-fashioned now. I can sit down in front of my computer, and with a few keystrokes, I can have coffee beans delivered, order a used copy of a book, and download an entire album’s worth of MP3s. With this kind of at-your-fingertips convenience, Borders seems like a hindrance rather than a convenience. Small wonder, then, that despite a valiant attempt to stay relevant, Borders closed its doors permanently in July of 2011.
The question is why. Why did Borders close? Poor business practice? A failure to fully engage the e-book market? Perhaps it’s all of these reasons—or some combination thereof. However, I think there’s a bigger issue at play. We live in the customizable culture. Everything we want is not only right at our fingertips, but also completely customizable to our tastes. Online, you can create playlists, order custom coffee beans, print your own book, and order custom skins for your laptop or cell phone. You can even order customized jeans and Converse shoes. The customizable culture elevates individual expression to capitalistic commodity. You are what you buy.
And maybe that’s always been the case, even when bookstores like Borders didn’t seem like relics, the shopping malls we once roamed. But roaming through a bookstore, glancing down at the rows and rows of titles, and soaking up the atmosphere of coffee and bookbinding glue reminds me that while I love the convenience of shopping online, I miss the adventure of browsing in a brick-and-mortar bookstore. For me, shopping at Amazon or Powell’s or any other online book merchant inverts the book shopping paradigm: when I go online, I discover books; when I shop in a bookstore, books discover me. Online, I type in a title or an author and I get a list of what’s available. I’ll also get a list of recommendations, based on my choice. However, shopping in a bookstore, I wander row to row, each aisle opening up endless possibility with each outward-facing spine.
Am I being a little Romantic about this? Most certainly. I have some serious reservations about the way that big-box bookstores ran small, independent bookstores out of business. I’m also bothered by the way that big-box bookstores summarily ignored small, independent publishers. Big-box bookstores in many ways turned art (writing) into commodity. Maybe big-box bookstores are a part of the customizable culture, too. However, at the same time, I mourn the loss of any bookstore, small or large. And I miss the wonder I had that first time I visited a Borders in Washington, D.C., when I walked the aisles, mystified by all the possibilities.
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O for a muse of fire,