An Elegy to Borders, or, The Importance of Place

By Betsy Bradford

The internet has brought many changes, both positive and negative. Many of our daily interactions have become quicker and more simple. We can communicate instantly, or comparison shop or book travel without ever having to leave home and know that we got the best deal. But while some things have become more convenient, I can't help thinking that we're losing something very precious by replacing physical interactions with electronic ones. Although these aren't new ideas, the recent liquidation of the Borders chain has led me to reflect on it anew. Throughout my life, I've visited many different Borders franchises, each one like the others while also maintaining its own uniqueness. With the simultaneous loss of all of the remaining stores, I am forced to think about my love of bookstores and the added value of shopping for books within a physical space.

I'm not claiming that Borders, a mega-chain, represented something irreplaceable in our culture. If I had to choose between the entirety of Borders and every independent bookstore in the country, then my choice would be clear. For me, Borders has never been the place to go to discover a brilliant new author. Rather, Borders was the store I'd go to when I knew exactly what I wanted to buy, particularly if it was mass-market fiction. Still, when I look back at every Borders that I ever stopped in, whether I visited it once or dozens of times, I can describe a unique experience that can't be replicated by sitting at home and buying books through Amazon.

What I'm talking about is the importance of place. When you walk into a bookstore, you find yourself surrounded by thousands of bound volumes. Just entering an environment like this is a transformation. As you roam the aisles, you'll find other bibliophiles browsing the shelves, either seeking a known volume or hoping to discover something new. I've been in bookstores with children reading manga sprawled across the floor, college students browsing periodicals, teenagers eagerly looking for the latest volume of the Luxe series, and movie buffs staring at an unexpected find in the DVD section. I've found myself caught up in groups of Twilight fans seeking a coveted ticket to the DVD release party, or standing next to an arachnophile absorbed in a large, glossy text on North American spiders. A visit to an online vendor does not replicate this kind of experience. You'll find reviews, yes. You may even use Facebook to see what other people are reading, but it isn't the same thing. Online shopping lacks the immersive quality of walking into a store.

I've always sought out bookstores, and as I've moved around the country, Borders has been a constant presence. The first Borders that I ever visited was on Church Street in Burlington, Vermont, about an hour from where I grew up. I can't remember a time that that particular Borders store wasn't there, and I rarely made the trip to Church Street without making a stop there. I can picture myself leaving the shop clutching my new purchases to get dumplings from the nearby street vendor, and then sitting on a park bench eating a scalding-hot crab Rangoon while trying to avoid dripping cheese on my book. After leaving Vermont, there were other Borders that I fell in love with. In Seattle, I'd visit the shop on Fourth Avenue, take the narrow escalator upstairs, browse for a while before walking back down to pay for my books and scurry across the street to a Seattle's Best café because, ironically, the Seattle Borders didn't have its own. In Bloomington, Indiana, I spent many hours sitting in the café with a latte and my laptop, then browsing books and CDs when I'd finished my work. In a college town such as Bloomington, Borders was a frequent stopping place for students and university employees alike, and I'd often run into people I knew there.

These experiences aren't gone with the demise of Borders, but the venues have grown more limited. Borders occupies a large place in my heart, to the extent that I can't quite picture Church Street in Burlington or Eastland Plaza in Bloomington without it. Unlike other writers, I'm not going to make sweeping pronouncements about the death of the bookstore just because Borders is going out of business, but I do mourn the loss of so many places to experience books. Thank you, Borders, for the many happy memories.