When I was growing up, the kind of people who today are lamenting the decline of physical books in the face of e-reading were busy bemoaning the decline of independent bookstores in the face of ruthless national chains. As it happens, 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.
But even later when my magazine reading went on line, for years in DC my go-to time-killer was to spend some time in a Borders flipping through graphic novels or books. And I would feel sentimental about abusing the place, and usually make sure to buy things there. I love shopping online, but I was actually quite resistant to the original Amazon business of buying books online because I wanted to support the idea of a bookstore. And to me a bookstore meant not a quaint little dusty shop somewhere, but precisely a Borders or a Barnes & Noble. A bright, large, well-kept shiny temple to media! Magazines! DVDs! Twenty percent off on new hardcovers! Coffee! Bathrooms! Comic books! A perfect self-contained ecosystem. A place to be alone, and yet a place to see and be seen. If you’d told me in 1999 that this social institution would be outlived by (of all things) the public library, I would have been blown away.
And yet there you have it. Borders Books and Music is no more, joining HMV and Tower Records on the dustbin of media sales. Apple’s taking retail boxed software off their shelves. 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?