I cosign Matt’s eulogy for Borders, and for bookstores in general:
Where I grew up our local independent bookstore was a little place called Barnes & Noble that, obviously, grew and became one of the major national chains. So I never was quite on the chain-bashing kick. Then when I moved to DC, I was actually more in proximity to some Borders outlets, which were also cool. Consequently, it wound up touching me in a surprise way to wake up this morning to a Borders email saying “goodbye” to everyone who’d been on their spam list all those years. Like Dave Weigel, I credit browsing the magazine racks at the bookstores (“Already, I was into politics, but didn’t know much about the world outside Time and Newsweek. Here was a store with six magazine racks and unfamiliar offerings like The Nation and National Review and In These Times and Reason”) of yore for teaching me about the world. Here I perused issues of Foreign Affairs and Mother Jones and who knows whatever else. The world seems small when you’re young…Long live digital downloading and long live the library. People still need places to go to get away from parents, roommates, and the rest of it all, right?
One thing I’d add is that there’s something really wonderful about the social element of bookstores. My first summer in college, I held down a couple of jobs, one of which was working the register at the huge Barnes and Noble in Burlington, Massachusetts. My coworkers were a group of people, a number of whom held advanced degrees in literature, but some of my coolest interactions were with the customers.
One time, I checked out a couple who were buying easily $200 worth of books, including dozens of copies of the same science fiction magazine — it turns out the man had just published his first short story in that issue, one of which he autographed for me. It’s still at home in my childhood bedroom. The actual content of the story escapes me, but sharing his excitement was a gift, especially since my own first publications were still a couple of years in the future. On the day Lawrence v. Texas was decided, striking down sodomy laws across the country, I celebrated with a young man who was buying a copy of Out. We threw a huge party to celebrate the release (and sell lots of copies) of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, and even though I knew, intellectually, that millions of people would be reading the book along with me the next day, there was something awesome about seeing all those shining, expectant faces gathered for the occasion, the idea that excitement surrounding the new book was so big that you had to be there, not just to get your copy as soon as possible, but to share it with other people. (Then, there was the dude shepherding a flock of teenage boys through the store so they could buy about a dozen identical Bibles. We didn’t have a lot to talk about.)
Social media means we all spend a lot of time signaling potential compatibility through the lists of the things that we like or don’t like. And it’s probably a more efficient process of figuring out who we’ll make a real initial connection with. But I kind of miss the days when we had less perfect information, and when it could feel really exciting to see someone buying or reading or browsing something you knew was just going to rock their world, and to risk a conversation with them on the basis of that. You can still do this on, say, public transit (though probably with a smaller chance of sketchiness if you’re a girl rather than a guy). But for me, bookstores will always be the places that introduced me to the idea that you can take a risk based on some slim public proof that you and another person share similar interior worlds.