It has been a bit since I’ve written, but I’m back. Writers stop writing to live. Then we come back…
In September, I visited our local closing Borders bookstore one last time. The parking lot was completely full, everyone from our town and many others from smaller adjoining towns coming in to get a last whiff of that bookstore smell that many of us have lodged into our sense memories. The line extended halfway to the back of the store. Though things appeared somewhat chaotic with books stacked in unusual places, and customers ignoring the idea of personal space as we all tried to find our favorite authors, the energy was pretty calm. Some wandered the book aisles carrying stacks of books, and others just wandered with looks in their eyes as if to say “Is this it?” I certainly asked myself that question, not really wanting to leave. I circled the store many times over as if I were doing laps, my mind reconciling the idea of bookstore closure. I purposefully pulled books from authors I had never heard of, excited to delve into work of the obscure writer. (I’ll post those titles later). Yes, as I’ve said, as a writer, a bookstore is a holy place for me.
I spoke to an elder woman who carried a hefty bag of books that she had just purchased. She burst into a monologue of how disappointed she was knowing that she could no longer walk to the bookstore to browse the shelves and pick up a new book when the mood hit her. Our town is a bike friendly, walking friendly town. Biking or walking to get our needs, to go to school, go to work, eat out, or pick up a book is an intrinsic part of our towns’ culture. I reminded her that we still have a couple of very tiny but still surviving small used bookstores we can patronize, but yes, Borders was the hub.
When I got home with my books, I studied them one by one as I pulled them out of the bag. By habit, I scraped the price tag off of the first book, and then I caught myself. This will be the last time I’ve ever purchased a book from this store. I took the Borders price tag and stuck it back over the barcode. And then I thought of the day when I have grandchildren and they’ll ask me “What’s a bookstore?” And even beyond that, what’s a book? As of recent, Borders became the Halloween Costume Shop.
I read this article today that falls in line with my most recent blog post The End of Books.
This is the story of a man, Brewster Kahle who is archiving every book ever printed. I guess this would be good if we all had to leave planet earth as many of the great science fiction stories have suggested. Or possibly a future Octavia Butler scenario via her great science fiction novel Dawn.
The closing of Borders marks the beginning of the end of a planetary era. Not to say that Borders in itself as a bookstore is this unique epic phenomenom. Borders, along with all bookstores, have provided a continuation of the culture of the printed word.
Thousands of years ago, the ancient Egyptians utilized papyrus, (a writing material that was made from the pith of the stem of a water plant*), to record texts that filled the temples, libraries, and schools, for scholars, doctors, students, and government. We have discovered the inner workings and the magic of the ancient world through written texts. Without the printed word, all of the knowledge and history of the past would indeed be a great mystery. And more importantly humankind has evolved as a result of the recorded knowledge left by our ancestors. Civilization has evolved throughout time utilizing the tool of the printed word, whether it be a written constitution that has expressed the principles of democracy for the modern world, or spiritual texts that have solidified the existence, continuity, and faith of world religions throughout time, placed in the hands of billions of people over the course of thousands of years.
In this lifetime, sitting in churches and temples, will people pray with a Kindle in hand?
The Borders bookstore stands in my fairly small university town. Aside from two very small used bookstores, it is the only major bookstore for miles. Therefore, people in three border towns that have no bookstores have relied on our Borders. That’s a combination of at least one university, one community college, four high schools, and seven middle schools that use our Borders as an access to books. This doesn’t include the non-academic general public that comprises an older generation who shop at Borders for their reading pleasure. Yes, there are libraries, but most are limited, and any newer books or classics that a student may need flies off of the shelf in a heartbeat. For any of you that have kids, how many times have they come home to say they need to read Animal Farm by Monday on a Friday night? Borders has always come to the rescue for me in that way, book in hand right when it’s needed.
The day after the announcement was made that Borders was closing, I visited the store, shocked to see that the coffee shop inside of the store that is always filled to capacity with people day and night, was already vacated, tables and chairs stacked on top of one another, boxes already packed, leaving an empty dark space. That was fast! I then walked over to the Young Adult section. Teenagers sat scattered on the floor near bookshelves, quietly reading the latest sequel of their favorite sci-fi and teen novels. Many students I know go to the bookstore as an escape from a not-so-good home life or they are latch-key kids wanting to hang out in a safe place. Their presence has always been a constant in the store, and I wondered how they would fill their time in a small town now that their favorite pastime at Borders will no longer exist for them.
I eyed the plethora of magazines, some hard to find lit journals and international publications that I’d have to drive to a major city to obtain. Yes, I guess I could order subscriptions but I simply wouldn’t have time to read them all, not to mention the cost. I will miss being able to sit and thumb through magazines, or stumbling upon that unique magazine that has content that can transform my world. Leaving the store, I realized I will simply miss going to the bookstore.
When I was a kid, when the power would go out due to a stormy night, there was no stress or fretting about having nothing to do. We’d simply light candles and read by candlelight. If I had writing to do, I’d continue tapping away on my typewriter. I’m sure this is true for millions of people from the era of words in print.
With the introduction of the digital age, our own lure towards embracing consumerist trends has led us to the erosion of our freedom to choose as individuals. Video store franchises have closed, limiting the exposure and outlet for many independent films on a domestic and international basis. Bookstores are closing. Libraries will close. I can’t even begin to count how many times I have stumbled upon a great book or film simply by allowing my eyes to browse the shelves of a bookstore or library. A great title or book cover would catch my eye that beckoned me to pick it up, most often resulting in an engaging, and sometimes transformative experience. I discovered some of my favorite authors in this way, authors I would never have encountered otherwise.
The intuitive experience of choosing is the experience of discovery. It is an experience that I feel is being shaped for me while being stripped from me, and as a writer, discovery is an experience that has shaped my writing life. We will ultimately be forced to purchase most of what we need online and/or in a digital format, and if this is the case, I will have to be on the internet hours on end in my attempts to “discover” what it is that I may need or want. The world culture has now been shaped for humans to have their eyes on a digital screen, whether in hand crossing the street or succumbing to the lethargy of sitting at a computer for hours every week, not because you want to, but simply because you have to in order to navigate successfully in a modern world.
The closing of Borders has left me with feelings of great loss, as it not only represents the convenience of having a bookstore in my town, but on a much deeper level, it marks the shift and ending of the way civilization has functioned for thousands of years. This is profound, and also a bit frightening, as it has felt like the rug being pulled beneath me. Ultimately, bookstore closings are a signal to us all that the future is bringing to us a world without books. I can only wonder what the implications will be…