Spilled ink over Borders’ bankruptcy

The coincidence is not lost on me that the week I purchased a Kindle is the week Borders Books & Music — the big box version of a bookstore that I grew up on — filed bankruptcy and announced it would be closing 30% of its stores.

Nor do I take it lightly.

When I was an all-joints adolescent growing up in suburban Phoenix, Borders served as an entry point and an escape for me. In the same way media conglomerate Blockbuster introduced me to all the movies I’d never seen before (and my first job), so did the towering brick and mortar bookstore facilitate my introduction to the joys of reading, but also just spending time around books.

Borders was far better than the Waldenbooks of the mall (which they soon absorbed with the help of Kmart). You could just go to Borders and wander around and it was fun. Fun in the way I was just learning the library could be fun. You could sit down and read a book before buying. You could browse magazines. You could drink coffee. You could even listen to music you were curious about before shelling out the $13 they overcharged you and still do. (My second job was working in the CD section of the Best Buy next door, but that’s another blog post.)

I showered them with my minimum wage paychecks. And my life was rich with Camus, Salinger, Star Wars novels and issues of Rolling Stone, if not half-dressed high school girls.

After I went to college, the same Borders served as a sanctuary for my family when my mother went through her second divorce. We’d meet there and spend as much time as we needed. Catch up, plot our next move, share a paper.

So I’m tempted to shed a tear for Borders as I read about its demise, on digital
ink. But not so fast.

As big a role as Blockbuster, Tower Records and Borders all played in my young exposure to art, let’s be honest, they really shouldn’t have. They were there because they had annihilated smaller competition with economies of scale and mergers long ago.

These days, I download. I read on a computer screen. I try things before I buy them. I read them on Kindle. But the same weekend the Kindle arrived, I went to the library. The prior weekend I picked up Chris Ware’s new Acme Novelty Library, and a cherished Doug Coupland book from my local friend-owned bookstore. Just to own. Another friend at Floating World, not Amazon, will ship my next bundle of stapled-together comics.

Borders is dead, but print not quite.

I remember not long after I moved to Portland, where I found a mecca of independent book and music stores, I got to thinking.

All my life growing up, I never knew what it was like to happily pay an individual for a product he or she sells. To feel good about buying something, not just to gain an item, but to support something you believe in. To see the face of the person your money goes to, and to know that your money helps them continue providing a place that you don’t just frequent – you love.

That’s what the Borders and the Blockbusters and the Towers rob the consumer of, robbed me of. The teenager starves for something real, and he deserves someone real offering it to him.

So I read on a matte grey screen with my $20 a month digital NYT subscription about the toppling of brick and mortar media giants. And I know that my next paper books will be purchased soon, and from someone I know, someone small and nearby.

I might shed a small tear for Borders Books & Music. But if we have to put an epitaph on its gravestone, maybe it should read: Live by the free market, die by the free market.

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