“Think of every town you’ve lived in…”

You’re not supposed to love a chain store—but in the autumn of 1992, no one had ever told me that. Earlier that year, sophisticated friends had taken me to the Strand in New York and Shakespeare & Company in Paris, and I marveled at what I beheld. Outside of libraries, I had never seen so many books, and I crept through the aisles with palpable glee. Even so, when they told me that both sites were cultural landmarks, I didn’t know how to respond. Although my purchases should have proven otherwise, those great, sprawling bookstores just didn’t exist. Like museums and cathedrals, they were mirages we gawked at on brief urban field trips; there’s no way such places were real.

That winter, I came home from college, and soon heard that people were talking: they’d put a new bookstore out on Route 18, and everyone said it was huge. Skeptical, I headed for the highway, expecting another mall store, some glorified hallway with only the latest bestsellers; but at the end of a half-dead strip-mall, less than a mile from the local landfill, in front of a parking lot pitted with potholes and crags, was an oasis I’d never imagined.

Tables by subject, comfortable seating, intimate aisles with rich wooden shelves—I was overwhelmed. My small college town offered nothing like this, and I was doubly amazed to discover a “medieval studies” section, several shelves of books that I simply hadn’t known I could own. In the months that followed, I often returned, making many impulse purchases—The Kalevala, Njal’s Saga, The Poetic Edda, the works of Sir Thomas Malory—without foreseeing that one day I’d be teaching most of these books, sharing them with students who otherwise wouldn’t have known them.

I also didn’t foresee that after fifteen years, this bookstore, destined to be dubbed “underperforming,” would quietly go out of business.

On Sunday, shoppers lamented the store’s final week. “I’m so sorry you’re closing,” wailed one woman, accosting a startled clerk. “It’s going to kill me!” As I wandered the aisles the very last time, I was hardly as histrionic, because I couldn’t help noticing that where once there were no mega-bookstores within half an hour of where I grew up, now there are nearly twenty. The closing of one store may be worthy of wistfulness, but in our era of Amazon.com and convenient, coffee-mad superstores, the idea that such places can “underperform” should be cause for a satisfied smile.

We’re spoiled; we quickly forgot that on the eve of the invention of the first Web browser, a Borders store was such a big deal that we dragged out-of-towners to see it. Those big-city bookstores were somebody else’s; this box, full of futures, was ours.

11 thoughts on ““Think of every town you’ve lived in…”

  1. They’re closing that Borders? I remember going there with some friends shortly after it opened and running into one of our (collective) professors. One of my friends asked him (jokingly) why he wasn’t just shopping at the School Bookstore. He replied, “I have enough T-shirts, thanks.”

    Man, that store was my lifeline @ UD.

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  2. As far as I know, the one in Delaware is safe; the store shown above is in East Brunswick, N.J. But you were lucky; when I was at UD, we didn’t even have a Borders. We had only the lame school bookstore; a little bookshop in the mini-mall; or the second-hand shop on Cleveland Ave. that sold mostly romance novels. (And, of course, the Newsstand, which was by far my own favorite oasis.)

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  3. Indeed, but I wonder if part of the problem is over-expansion. I was amazed to see that there are nearly 20 B&N and Borders superstores (not counting the many smaller, mall-based stores) within 25 miles of my childhood home. Sixteen years ago, there were none. I benefited greatly when the line of thinking changed from “folks in suburban Central Jersey don’t care about bookstores” to “folks in suburban Central Jersey need a couple dozen big bookstores,” but now I suspect that availability exceeds demand.

    That said, I hope you’ll comment further, or post on your own blog, about the management issues involved.

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  4. I use Amazon.de almost exclusively these days, because the bookstores here (chains and indies) employ illiterate morons who can’t run a search to save their life, or know what’s where in their own friggin’ stores.

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  5. Re: college bookstores. I, a Rutgers boy, spent a couple of summers working at the Princeton University U-store and I could never get over the difference in the bookstores. The U-store had tons of T-shirts and tiger gear, naturally, but that was all upstairs — downstairs was a pretty serious bookstore for both browsing and textbook-buying. When I arrived at Rutgers in the late 1970s, the university bookstore was a glorified candy stand in back of Brower Commons. After the Ferren parking deck opened across from the train station, it actually became possible to find books lodged behind the Scarlet Keh-niggits beer mugs and sweatshirts, but there was strill no comparison. Living in New Brunswick, you had your choice of Old York Books, a small used bookstore, or Pyramid Books, which was a dumping ground for used and remaindered books.

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  6. There was a bookstore in downtown Highland Park in the ’80s, too, but I had mixed feelings about it. The ladies who ran the place used to scold me for sitting on the floor, even though that was the only way to scan the titles on the lower shelves.

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  7. I feel like i’m living in the past.

    The day I read this post, I set off into town to visit the new Borders there. I drooled all over it, and exclaimed at the shop assistants “but i thought they only had these in Sydney”. They had FIVE WHOLE SHELVES OF MEDIEVAL STUFF. mostly pedestrian, penguin classics and the like, but STILL.

    Amazon.com.au still doesn’t exist, maybe that has something to do with the viability of such places down here?

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