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.
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.