Several weeks ago I received an email letter from Borders. It began: "Dear Borders Rewards Member, As I am sure you've heard by now...." From there it was downhill. The letter went on to say that the bookstore mega-chain was about to die.
In what appeared to be a heartfelt missive, CEO Mike Edwards told me to prepare for the funeral. He explained the various factors behind the demise of Borders: the ebook revolution, Amazon, a turbulent economy. We all know the list. (He did not mention oversizing or other troubling management decisions.) I was advised to act quickly on Borders Rewards Points and check out Borders' basement bargain prices soon.
I had been preparing for this. Rumors had been flying for months that the bookstore giant was "in financial trouble." Despite its size, Borders was not too big to fail. No government agency was going to come along to shovel out greenbacks to keep it kicking.
But I was surprised to find myself in a state of grief. A book addict, I could not imagine being deprived of weekly fixes of a benign drug at the store that had opened eight years ago just five miles from my home. A dreary incantation pounded through my head reminiscent of Edgar Allen Poe's raven: Borders is dead, now in the red, nevermore Borders, Borders is dead.
But oddly I found consolation in the tragedy. It speaks to something still deep and vital in our screen-driven frantic culture that I discovered other people in my community also trying to come to terms with their loss. Yes, Borders was "just a profit-seeking business" with a bottom line to tend too, they rationalized. Yes, this mega-bookstore had destroyed many small independent bookstores.
But after all the concessions had been trotted out, everyone confessed to feeling pretty low about it all. In Borders stores across the country, these people and others like them had spent countless Saturdays and Sundays meeting friends and family, looking for the perfect birthday or holiday gift, holding business meetings, cramming for exams, creating virtual offices on coffee tables in the store cafe, catching up on American politics or the newest novel, reading the latest niche magazines, and, most indulgently, having a coffee and croissant on a cold dark rainy day.
These rituals cemented relationships. They encouraged us to ask questions, think more deeply, ace the exam, laugh more (if we found ourselves in the Humor section), find jobs (when the bookstore staffer directed us to books on the work world), and relax after a long day at work. Borders was that brick-and-mortar post-modern hut where we could connect with the globe and with each other in a way that only a bookstore can provide.
When our local Borders opened in a cookie-cutter mall it was so mega-sized I was breathless upon entering. Like something out of an Isaac Asimov sci-fi story, I had the odd sensation I was entering a human brain. I was awed by the human knowledge these books represented. From my perch on the escalator that carried me from first floor to second, I looked over what appeared to be a football field of books. Over the years I created my own virtual office on a lopsided coffee table. My two sons squealed with delight – I groaned with exhaustion – at midnight release parties for the latest J.K. Rawlings' book, which went on interminably year after year.
After 9/11 there were book discussions to discuss Islam. When my sons befriended a boy so poor he had no kitchen table in his home, the three bonded over Borders' weekly chess matches. After a long day we'd indulge in audiophile heaven – clamping on headsets spread throughout the CD department and sampling everything from Rachmaninoff to Indian Bollywood scores. We'd laugh ourselves red in the face reading Dave Barry out loud. High school news got shared over a coffee. In one of Borders' many remarkable Special Events, I met Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor. Of course she was selling her memoir.
I vowed not to return to Borders in its closing days. Why visit a corpse? Certainly there would be vulture-like discount-hunters picking over a cadaver like the undertakers in Dickens' story plowing through Scrooge's pockets. But eventually I did return. I found there a crowd of worshipful readers sampling and collecting books as if they were artifacts of a vanishing age. My husband morbidly snapped iPhone photos of the space where football fields of books had once spread. I did not know he then forwarded them to our sons.
The next day I received a text message. It read: "So many happy coffees after busy school days." It came from my son. What was he writing about? "Please translate," I responded. "I am sad Borders is closing," my son texted back.
I emailed the pictures to friends. "A sad sight, very sad indeed," wrote one Japanese friend. We had become lifelong friends over tea at Borders. "All our sunny memories at Borders," replied a teacher. "Your smile was assuring in the emptiness of the space." A professor not prone to emotionalism wrote, "I was sad as well." He added warily, "A nation that does not read can never really grow."
For all its pitfalls, Borders allowed us to grow.
Journalist Priscilla Hart lives – and reads – in Annapolis, Md.