Ode to a Fallen Bookstore

1 Aug
The old Borders in my hometown

The old Borders in my hometown

I remember going to Borders in high school late at night when there was nowhere else to go, and stalking the bookshelves with my friends, giggling at romance novel covers and browsing the more esoteric sections of the magazine rack (Cat Fancy, anyone?). Borders was a place to hang out in those teenage years, and even in the last few years, whether it was Borders or Barnes and Noble or any other well-lit place where books are sold (Book Passage is a favorite), I’ve enjoyed perusing the newest titles, flipping through them to check out the dedication page, the back page blurbs, and in the case of translated fiction, who the translator was (once a translator, always a translator).

I also like giving books as gifts to friends and family for birthdays or for Christmas. There was a time when you could show your knowledge of someone’s tastes by buying them a CD by a band that you actually knew that they liked or, better yet, make them a mix that they could play on their own. The death of the mixed tape has been well-documented, a relic from a bygone era of The Bodyguard soundtrack and Kennedy and Bill Bellamy as VJs on MTV. The music store as gathering place for music lovers of mainstream pop acts and obscure bands alike is long gone, but I still miss having a place to go to meet like-minded music fans. Yes, I can meet them online, and iTunes and Pandora have an algorithm that knows exactly what I like, but the music store is something I didn’t realize I’d miss until it was as ancient as the typewriter.

I have the same uneasy feeling now about books and bookstores. That they’re fading fast. I have come to see the convenience of an mp3 player- carrying around with me hundreds of songs (no, I didn’t say thousands- my iPod is from Spring 2005).  So as I walk the streets of San Francisco, I can listen to a song I bought when I was 15, and then listen to a song that’s playing on the radio today. The iPod provides an ever-changing soundtrack to my life, curated by me. And yet I still don’t understand the appeal of the e-reader.  When will I ever need to carry around thousands of volumes of books at once? So I can toggle between War and Peace and In Search of Lost Time? I like to finish one book before starting another.  And what of giving a book as a gift- inscribed by the giver with a personalized message, a sort of “I know you’ll enjoy this, dear friend”? It’s not possible with an e-reader.

Closed Borders Soma

Closed Borders Soma

I’m sure these arguments will seem quaint in the future, a future where libraries are gone and bookstores are empty and abandoned, just like the one in my hometown Borders seen above (and also the one in my San Francisco neighborhood that closed last October). But there is something convivial about a bookstore filled with browsers that can’t be found in these empty storefronts- or in the glowing screen of an e-reader.

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