Thursday, March 10, 2011

Borders Between Hope and Despair

We here at Exfanding Your Horizons seem to spend a fair amount of time talking about Borders, everyone's favorite Chapter 11 bookstore. Having recently been to a "going out of business" edition of Borders, I can tell you firsthand why we continually find ourselves back at this topic.

Walking the floor of a ravaged major bookseller is like walking the battlefield after a war, seeing what's still salvageable and who you've lost. Magazines and comics discarded by listless visitors into the empty racks that once held a full compliment of contemporary music. Display racks with little more than a handful of the most unloved children's games and toys. Disorderly shelves with toppled books and books with the spine facing in toward the shelf.

It's all a lost cause. Even with 25% off of everything plus a 10% discount with a membership card, it's still more expensive than what you'd pay on Amazon. No one seems to care. Not the two remaining employees; not the scavengers who feel more like they're raiding a dead man's house than hunting through bargain bins. Let's get out of here, they all think. And the nation seems to agree.

My fiancée and I visited a small independent seller of used books on our anniversary trip to Small Romantic Town, USA. While the sheer number of books on sale at a place like Borders is impressive, the selection is seldom adequate for my interests. Whether it's literature, music, television, or video games, I am rarely interested by "the latest thing." The hottest new releases don't stay hot forever, and I prefer to wait until the price drops and delve into something that remained relevant and worthwhile long after "It's new!" stopped being its primary selling point.

This little bookstore was not just a place to pick up the latest release, or to dig around for a new cookbook or coffee table book. This was a place to have an excursion, to get lost in the stacks, to marvel at each and every book on the shelf, because each one was a treasure, a relic, a curiosity. This store was not merely storage space for neatly arranged books. These books had a home, and when purchased, would follow you to your home. Chain bookstores always struck me as book galleries more than someone's personal library that you are allowed to buy from, but there's still something alluring about being around such a large concentration of books, if for no other reason than the possibility of what might be there if you explore enough.

Surveying what was left of that moribund Borders, there was little joy in the exploration. A few good finds, to be sure, but in the end, it became one of those typical movie situations: "We got what we came for--let's scram!" The voice over the intercom announced that the store would be closing soon, but they'd be open again tomorrow at 10 AM. Like visiting hours at the most solemn wing of a hospital.

We continually find ourselves back at this topic because it's not just Borders that is suffering--it's an entire industry; an entire way of life. Borders is one big example of how and why. "Adapt or die," they say. Seems more like "adapt and die" to me. We adapt to new technology; bookstores die, their wares and method of sale having become obsolete. Bookstores adapt to new technology; bookstores die anyhow, becoming financially stable again at the expense of the magic that attracted us to them in the first place.

Perhaps we're headed into a digital age that will create a new bookstore culture unlike anything we've imagined. Maybe the wonder of sifting through towers of used books will be matched by the wonders that technology has in store for us, which we might yet experience in the brick-and-mortar stores that once carried those antiquated paper books we used to love. Yet however bright the future may possibly be, the shadows cast by the irrelevant, vacated display racks at Ghost Town Borders are obscuring what little hope we seem to have in the present.

Maybe if we bury our heads in the sand, we can enjoy this going-out-of-business sale at face value (or 25% off face value) and leave the metaphors to the writers and poets whose distributors may soon find themselves out of a job.

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