Saturday, April 2, 2011

Memories of Borders

Fair warning: This post involves me getting maudlin and sentimental about the fate of a multibillion-dollar retail chain.

I only make the occasional trip to my nearby Borders now, and it's been along time since I did a significant amount of my book shopping there, but I was still saddened to hear that the company had filed for bankruptcy and was closing many of its locations. 

When I was a little kid, I had three main sources of books. One was my grandfather, who had a large collection of history, science, and geography books. This is probably what set me down the path to becoming a science fiction reader, since the astronomy books were usually my favorites.

The second was the local library, which was an invaluable resource for me as a kid first delving into science fiction, but had a rather limited selection of the genre- especially if I wanted to read something that had actually been published that decade or find lots of books by a particular author who had captured my attention, two concerns that loomed larger as I became a bigger fan of the genre. My library options were further constrained by the fact that the books aimed at my age group mostly filled little or no interest for me, and because- in an excellent demonstration of the fact that being able to read at college level in elementary school is entirely compatible with being a complete idiot- I assumed that "Young Adult" at my library meant young adult, as in people in their 20. Obviously. Why else would they call it that?

Consequently, I avoided that section on the assumption that I wouldn't be allowed to get books from it. Even at the time this seemed odd to me, since I couldn't figure out what was in those books that was so bad that people under 18 could not be trusted with them, but I was much too shy to ask the librarian about it. That wasn't too big a deal, though- there were plenty of books with no age-specific labels on them that seemed more interesting anyway. The science fiction books were right next to the technothrillers, which I also investigated from time to time, so I ended up knowing more about busty KGB spies seducing men to steal NATO military secrets than a 4th grader probably ought to, but all in all it was for the best- there are probably few things that would have squelched my desire to read more effectively than excessive exposure to what adults typically thought someone my age should read.

The third source was a B Dalton I occasionally visited at the mall in the next town over. It was better than nothing, certainly, and it gave me a better chance of finding recently published books by an author I'd discovered than the library. But it was very small, the shelf space containing subjects I had any interest in was still smaller, and the science fiction section was roughly the size of my couch.

Between them, these sources provided me with quite a bit of reading material. More importantly than any particular book or books, they showed me that reading was fun and interesting.
I'm sure my teachers at school weren't trying to make me believe that reading was a dull, inane  ordeal to be tolerated only to the minimum extent necessary to make them leave me alone... but if they had been they wouldn't have needed to do things any differently, so I was very lucky to have countervailing influences. Still, these resources were limited, and I began to feel their limitations more keenly when I was interested in reading books about a particular subject or by a specific author instead of just rummaging through shelves until I stumbled on something that caught my eye.

My first visit to a Borders was on a trip to downtown Chicago when I was probably 10 or 11 years old- time to kill before an appointment. I had never seen, or even imagined, anything like it before. Row after row of bookshelves, each seeming to stretch out forever. The science fiction section alone was nearly bigger than the entire B Dalton at the mall. The atmosphere was calm, peaceful, and unthreatening, the sort of place I always wished I could be in. I still remember the first book I got there, too- the paperback of Timothy Zahn's Heir to the Empire.

For several years, my access to Borders was limited to those occasional trips into the city with a parent, squeezed in if there was spare time before our primary business. When I was in high school, however, another Borders location opened much closer to my house, which meant that going there became something that it was possible to do any time I had a spare hour and a ride. It was an opportunity I took advantage of frequently.

The popular claim that mega-chain stores like Borders or Barnes and Noble are bad because they hurt independents drives me up the wall, and this is a big part of the reason why. I know there are many fine independent bookstores out there, and I'm happy for the people with the good fortune to have easy access to such places- but I have very, very little patience with those who lament the existence of stores that made it possible for millions of people who didn't enjoy that same privilege to have greater access to the wider array of books that the anti-chain partisans themselves already enjoyed and took for granted.

I do most of my book shopping online now. The Borders near my home is still there, and I still go from time to time. I don't know about the one I visited downtown, since I don't know its address, but in light of the large number of store closings announced for Chicago there's a good chance it's one of the casualties.

Whatever happens to the chain next- and the answer seems to be "nothing good"- Borders will always be special to me. I can't describe the feeling of my first visit to one adequately, and if I could it would probably sound utterly ridiculous- an elementary-schooler in rapturous awe at the sight of a chain store's lobby. But I was.  I loved books- for what they were, and for what they helped my imagination create a refuge from- and here there were more than I had ever imagined possible in single place. Encountering something like Borders for the first time made the world seem like a much richer, and perhaps less malevolent, place than I had imagined before.


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