Commentary
10:37 am
Thu July 21, 2011

Why Borders Mattered

I was in my early twenties before I discovered Borders’, which then had been open for two or three years. The sensation when I first walked in was what I felt when I first visited the Library of Congress.

Overwhelming excitement, and despair. How could I ever possibly read all the books worth reading? You would need lifetimes to do it. Yet, here, at least, I could visit a sort of cathedral of the mind.

I remember how excited I was in my early thirties when Border’s opened its second store a stone’s throw from my first house in the Detroit suburbs. Another Borders, right here!  I think I understood how people in Appalachia felt when the Tennessee Valley Authority brought them electricity, back in the nineteen-thirties.

I will soon be sixty, and before that, Borders will be gone. A last-ditch attempt to save the bookstores failed last week, when the creditors concluded they’d probably do better with just a straight liquidation than they might if the latest venture to save them failed.

There are all sorts of theories about why Borders couldn’t be saved. Some said e-readers, some said the Internet. Some say the stores expanded too fast and moved beyond their core competence of selling books. One man said he knew Borders would die the day he found himself buying skin moisturizer there.

Well, I know that I, too, helped to kill Borders in recent years, all the times I wanted a book, or wanted to send a gift book, and bought it from Amazon instead. It was faster, often cheaper, even with shipping charges, and I didn’t have to leave my house.

That doesn’t mean I didn’t still go to Borders, especially around the holidays. Actually, I suppose I didn’t go more often in part because I am a book addict, and know I can’t stop myself from buying books I don’t have time to read to stockpile for Armageddon, or when I am held under house arrest, or something.

Well, that’s now all about to come to an end.  But here’s what’s saddest about the demise of Borders: The loss of high-quality, random access browsing. The best part of going to a book store was never locating the copy of Great Expectations you need, plucking it off the shelf and buying it. The best part is browsing, seeing new and unexpected books you never existed, and picking them up. My life has sometimes been changed by bumping into a book on a bookstore shelf that way; they’ve started me on new hobbies, explorations, and interests.

Amazon tries to replicate that in a clumsy way, suggesting books based on other books I’ve bought. But it isn’t the same.

We’re experiencing the same sort of loss with the demise of newspapers. When you open up and spread out a paper newspaper, you can’t help but read unexpected and often fascinating stories. Reading online is different; I go to a virtual newspaper, call up all the stories on a particular topic, and exit.

There will still be brick-and-mortar bookstores after Borders, of course, but the world will never be quite the same. If there is hope, I think it lies in the nation’s high-quality used bookstores. Which, come to think of it, is how Borders started in the first place.