The last two Fridays, I’ve attempted to go to Borders. Both times, I’ve walked in, walked in one, big circle, and walked right out. Each time, as I’ve stepped out the door and back onto State Street, I’ve felt vaguely guilty, like I’ve shoplifted without getting caught. (I’ve also gone to the Jamba Juice next door both times, but that’s probably irrelevant.)
Borders is closing. Large signs are everywhere:
“EVERYTHING MUST GO!” “80% Off Mysteries!” “90% Off Science Fiction!” “ENTIRE STORE UP TO 90% OFF”
At the Chicago State Street Borders, the one I’ve attempted to visit the last two Fridays, the checkout line weaved all the way to the back of the store on the first floor. Where I once navigated the tables stacked with new fiction, bestsellers, and my personal favorite, the one piled with books marked, “buy one, get the second half off,” I now was mumbling “excuse me’” and navigating around bored-looking customers clutching handfuls of books.
It was too hot in there. All the beautiful books, once in orderly, organized sections, were now in chaos. There was Manga in the African American section! MANGA! Things weren’t alphabetized! SAT guide books were in the mystery section!
I couldn’t even bear to see what was happening in the poetry section.
90% off? I’m a sucker for a book on sale, but forgetaboutit.
The thing is, I’m devastated. Bookstores (and Borders in particular, and in particular this Borders) have always been my “happy” place. Let me put it this way: You know when you see those little kids trailing behind their mom at the mall, dragging their feet and looking like someone just killed their puppy, and then all of a sudden she exclaims, “We’re going to the TOY STORE next!” and BAM! They have now just won a golden fucking ticket! They are the chosen ones! They’re going to see Willy Wonka!
Yeah. I was not one of those kids. My “toy store” was … the bookstore. It didn’t matter how long mom had made us follow her around the borrrrrrring department stores all afternoon. Nothing mattered, because we had now stepped into the happy place. The bookstore. Mom would leave me alone while I perused the magical worlds of Roald Dahl, or sometimes Sweet Valley, or the Green Gables, wherever. Usually, she’d return with her own stack of books in her hand, and if there was ever a perfect time to con her into buying something, it’d be talking her into letting me get one more book than she had originally said.
I’d take the books out of the bag immediately once we got to the car. Nothing, and I mean nothing, felt more glorious than holding a new book in my hands.
This is probably the part where you call me out on being a huge geek. That’s fine. I am a huge geek.
Needless to say, not much has changed from the time I was 10 until now. Bookstores have always been my happy place, my safe haven, my own personal chocolate factory. In them, I’ve made some of my life’s best discoveries: Joyce Carol Oates. Charles Bukowski. Sweet Valley High. Anne Sexton. Frank O’Hara. She’s Come Undone. (And I, to date, have read She’s Come Undone probably eight times. It gets better every time.) Did I mention: Sweet. Valley. High.
My mom and I could always find an excuse to stop in a bookstore when were over in Indianapolis shopping. I remember the first time we went to the new, huge Barnes & Noble in Castleton. We just kept grinning. Just the smell of it! It was beautiful! It was everything it needed to be! It was a HUGE FUCKING STORE PACKED WITH BOOKS!
It’s been a long time since I’ve been in a bookstore with my mom. I don’t remember the last time we went to a bookstore before she died—my memory tells me it might have been a visit to the Half Priced Books in Castleton, but then again I don’t really know. And it doesn’t matter. The bookstore is, and always will be, my safe haven. I don’t miss my mom when I’m there—I just feel comforted, at home, and excited like a 10-year-old who knows she’s about to get a toy.
Several years ago, when I was living in Bloomington, working for IU, and feeling lonelier than I’ve ever felt, I lived just around the corner from the Borders there. At least once a week, I’d think of some excuse to go, even if it was just to pick up a copy of Bitch magazine (or search for Bitch, and get INCREDIBLY ANGRY when it wasn’t there). I’d inevitably end up wandering the aisles or sitting in the cafe area for way longer than necessary. But no matter how I felt when I walked in, I’d walk out feeling better. Everything was going to be okay. There would always be a new book to read, a new author to discover, a beautifully written article in a glossy magazine.
Fast forward to Chicago, several years later. The loneliness was gone, but it had now been replaced with a different, scarier emotion: fear. Fear that I would never get a good job again. Fear that I would have to move back home, tail between my legs. Fear that I would be waiting tables until I was 50. You get my drift. I was fucking scared. For a brief time, I waited tables downtown, only blocks away from the State Street Borders location. After, before, or between shifts, I’d walk over, even if it was just to stand in the poetry section and read for 20 minutes. I’d stay until I remembered: Everything was going to be okay.
In the last year, I’ve just loved the fact that, on my way to the train, I only have to take a quick, two block detour and be in this giant store packed with books I love and authors I’ve yet to discover. The last time I went—prior to these two brief, failed visits, that is—I was searching for a birthday present for my friend Beth, and randomly ended up chatting with this woman about the dire state of the African American lit section and how “kids today” just don’t appreciate good books like they used to (yeah, she made sure to tell me I was her daughter’s age). At one point during our conversation, this woman started reciting one of my favorite Langston Hughes poems. Sure, it sounds a little odd, but I thought it was great.
And I know I still have Barnes & Noble, or Myopic Books (but it’s hard to feel hopeful about the future of independent bookstores when Borders can’t keep its doors open!), and yes, I’ve heard of this crazy thing called the Internet, where I can go to this place called AMAZON and get books much cheaper.
But to me, it’s just not the same, and I'm sad about it.
So, Borders, it was swell while it lasted. Farewell, old friend.