September 12, 2011

Borders Requiem

Over at CNN’s website, Todd Leopold has a nice piece about the end of the road for Borders, particularly the chain’s flagship store in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Although it’s a natural part of the circle of corporate life, it still sucks.

What first grabbed me about Borders wasn’t the books (sorry, honey), but the music. At the store down the road in Barboursville, I could walk in and paw through racks of CDs that actually had some of the music I listened to in it – Marillion! Porcupine Tree! Van der fucking Graff Generator! Try doing that elsewhere in a small city like Charleston or Huntington and you’re likely to come up short.

Magazines, too.  In addition to the normal essential American car magazines, they regularly carried both Grassroots Motorsports and their vintage cousin, neither of which is exactly mainstream.  Same goes for European soccer mags like Four Four Two and music rags like Q and the newly established Prog (from the folks at Classic Rock).

Oh, yeah, and they sold books, too. And as a writer, any place that sells books that goes out of business is a bad thing.

I know I should look at Borders (and its chain store ilk like Barnes & Noble and Books a Million) as the corporate monstrosity it was, gobbling up and pushing out real independent bookstores over the years. Maybe that’s true in larger cities, but in places where I’ve lived, the truth is closer to what Leopold writes:
The best bookstores have a certain feel, a certain comfort to them. They're stately but not forbidding. The employees are a mix of the young and the eccentric, college students and lifers. The front of the store features their recommendations, a little offbeat, a little intriguing. If you're looking for something specific, they know where to find it; if you don't know what you're looking for, they can be your Virgil and Beatrice, guiding you through the world.

It is a place with a soul.

For much of its 40-year history, that was Borders. Though it was a chain, with hundreds of locations around the world, during its best years it maintained the feel of a great, expansive local bookstore, the 800-foot space multiplied by 10 or 20 (and much better organized). The choices were manifold, the employees passionate, the adventure always beginning.

In some towns and cities, Borders was it.
Now, Charleston has a wonderful, if small, indie in Taylor Books, but it could never match the range or selection that Borders had in its prime. Besides, it was alive and kicking while Borders was in business down the highway.

K, the girlfriend, worked for Borders when we met (she jumped ship back when it was merely taking on water, not yet sinking), first as an assistant manager then as grand poohbah of one of the stores in the Pittsburgh area. With few exceptions, the folks she worked with were as Leopold describes – bright, knowledgeable, and exceptionally helpful. They were hamstrung by a corporate leadership that didn’t know which end was up when it came to the 21st century retail however. As a result, they wound up another dinosaur along the side of the road, dead as the world marches slowly onwards.

So, like Leopold and many others, I’ll raise a glass to the Borders that once was, say thank you, and move on with my cultural life. Things change, after all.

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