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Borders Bookstore: Paying our Respects

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Our local Borders Bookstore is closing this spring; it’s one of several hundred closing their doors in the aftermath of the company’s Chapter 11 filing last week. Wasting no time, the store emailed its customers Friday, announcing a big gooing-out-of-business sale, and last night we stopped by as we have so many times in the 15 years or so the store has been there.

For us—my husband and our now-grown children, the Borders in Deerfield, Illinois was our favorite Saturday night haunt for many years. Our children went from buying board books and pre-readers to devouring the works of R.L. Stine, Madeline L’Engle and C.S. Lewis.

My children knew that while toys were always limited by our good graces and the proximity of birthday and other gift-giving days, the book budget knew no bounds. I believe that’s why we usually heard, “Are we going to Borders Saturday night?” instead of “Can we go to Toys “R” Us?” So, the Deerfield Borders holds for us many memories, the latest of which was to see my own book sitting on its TV/Film section shelves.

Venturing into the store last night, I flashed on the 1998 Tom Hanks-Meg Ryan movie You’ve Got Mail. In the movie, Meg Ryan’s character is the owner of an small independent bookstore in New York. Her business is threatened and then devoured by the newly opened big corporate bookstore down the street. The new store slowly eats away at the indie’s business, luring customers away with discount pricing, cozy chairs and fresh brewed coffee.

There’s an irony—perhaps even a sort of poetic justice—in the fact that like Meg Ryan’s little bookshop, Borders also got swallowed up by a bigger and more powerful fish (and by its own shortsightedness). So goes the food chain. Even more ironic is that the local independent bookseller, The Book Bin, still sails beneath the radar—still in business—just a couple miles down the road.

For me, however, the echoes of You’ve Got Mail aren’t in the Big Fish-Bigger Fish parallels, but in the mood I sensed last night—in what was probably our last trip to the Deerfield Borders. The store was crowded and baskets were full of books and CDs, although the store was only offering at 20% off retail price for all but a few things—nothing really you couldn’t get cheaper through Amazon.com.

Perhaps they felt a loyalty to the store and its book mavens, or maybe it was guilt. How many of those piling stacks of books down at the cash register had years ago switched to Kindles, Nooks and iPads for their reading matter? How many now purchased the bulk of their print versions at Amazon.com?

On the other hand, Borders had abandoned its patrons as well. The music department, one that would have rivaled any stand-alone record store, once boasted bins of obscure world music, jazz and folk music. You could literally spend hours browsing before selecting three or four CDs. But over the years it had been pared down to a mere shadow of its former self. Book shelves, too, once holding the best sellers alongside the more niche and lesser-known works, gave way to big names and current best sellers. What had started as a slightly bigger sister of the grand independent bookstore tradition had over the years lost increasingly bigger pieces of its soul.

Even so, hanging around the store last night, I felt a strong sense of prevailing doom and sadness. And like the scene in that movie where her bookstore at last closes, succumbing to the corporate giant down the street, visiting Borders last night felt like attending the bedside of a dying and aged aunt—the one you’d wished you visited more often in the past few years, but hadn’t the time. The conversations were hushed, the store’s shelves were half empty, the bathrooms showing more wear than they should have—and too much garbage strewn about. Moribund is an apt description.

Maybe the other patrons, like us, knew this store as it had been for years. It was the place you took your kids for story time, and where knowledgeable booksellers could recommend a new children’s series or a good historical novel—and speak with authority. It was one of those booksellers who introduced my precocious 8-year-old son to the Series of Unfortunate Events of Lemony Snicket #1, and made him a devotee of the series, even as he went on to reading Neil Gaiman and then James Joyce. 

Yes, Borders Bookstore will be missed in Deerfield, Illinois, and although I’ve shopped there a little less frequently over the last few years, preferring the depth of Amazon.com’s print offerings and the ease of reading for pleasure on my iPad and Kindle, I’m sad that this bit of our family history will be gone. 

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About Barbara Barnett

Barbara Barnett is Publisher/Executive Editor of Blogcritics, (blogcritics.org). Her Bram Stoker Award-nominated novel, called "Anne Rice meets Michael Crichton," The Apothecary's Curse The Apothecary's Curse is now out from Pyr, an imprint of Prometheus Books. Her book on the TV series House, M.D., Chasing Zebras is a quintessential guide to the themes, characters and episodes of the hit show. Barnett is an accomplished speaker, an annual favorite at MENSA's HalloWEEM convention, where she has spoken to standing room crowds on subjects as diverse as "The Byronic Hero in Pop Culture," "The Many Faces of Sherlock Holmes," "The Hidden History of Science Fiction," and "Our Passion for Disaster (Movies)."
  • I can commiserate with everything you said. Our local Border’s, while not going out of business…yet, is just a shadow of its former self. Amazing to me how similar our children’s upbringing regarding books has been. There are not enough bookcases in the world for my home.
    I do want to take just the slightest bit of credit for the love both of my children have had for books over their lifetime:)

    I am happy to have an opportunity to say this. I mourn for many other Bookstores from the past which were “sold out” a la “You’ve Got Mail” by Borders itself.

    We had several old, sit down and peruse through the stacks bookstores (my favorite kind) in our town. MY family and I would find hidden gems there, music from decades long since passed and the joys of finding something which was probably not filed in the right place. Oh what great times we had there. No, it wasn’t especially clean and neat but it beats these giant bookstars by a mile. I once found an original Peters Edition piano transcript there (long since out out of publishing) and too many other delights to even mention.

    These giant stores may be neat, clean and orderly but they are not half the place the Mom and Pop stores were in my opinion.

    People come, people go but we will never get back that type of store unless we travel to one of those great “Summer Towns” as in the Hamptons where some people still hold out against the Barnes and Nobles of the world and the Borders.

    I did like Borders. Please don’t misunderstand but it’s always sad to see old friends go away to be replaced by the “standard” fare in each store bearing their name. One is much the same as the next. Isn’t that the point? The branding.

    You’re so right about the music section though. That was always wonderful and now in my local Border’s…it’s a ghost town there.


  • When I was taking pictures for my Borders essay in culture, people stood in line to get our the superstore. Some glum and others curious, about half had come to bargain hunt. Of those, many owned small retail shops elsewhere.

    Borders in Union City, which is South of Oakland, is in a large shopping center called Union Landing, that hosts 10 chain restaurants, Wall Mart, Loews, Best Buy, a host of other corporate retailers, a Century 25 movie theater and (naturally) Starbucks and the symbiotic Jamba Juice.

    Although I focused on the business aspect of Borders, I must agree with Housecall’s observation that such giants “are not half the place the Mom and Pop stores” are both figuratively and literally.


  • Hi Barbara,
    Borders lost their way long ago when they became institutionalized instead of knowledgeable about books and customer service.

    Besides the indie you mentioned in Northbrook, we also have The Book Stall in Winnetka. It is a huge shop, with smart staffers, great sections for children, travel, cooking, as well as fiction and specialty art books. They hosted the second-largest number of book store events last year according to booktour.com.

    Fellow North-Shore BlogCritic, Helen Gallagher

  • Charles

    We were sad when our Borders closed too. I’m glad to see others feel a connection with their Borders too. It was always a nice destination when we wanted to get out of the house for a little while.

  • Interestingly, Helen, the Deerfield store had many of the same people around for years. They’re still there. But I totally agree. Of course there is the Book Stall! Famous place indeed. And we have Barbara’s Books (no relation) as well.

  • Hi Barbara,

    As one of the employees of your local Borders, I feel I’m in a unique position to comment. Yes, Borders lost its way long ago. Most of the store-level employees agree that problems could have been avoided if upper management had not been so short-sighted and slow to adapt, most notably in the e-reader market.

    Borders had a hard time finding an identity: was it a bookstore? A toy store? A place to hang out? A place with cheap discounts? Knowledgeable staff? Perhaps if an image were more clearly defined, Borders would last longer.

  • Hi Dave,
    Thanks so much for taking the time to comment. It was a great store that start. That Borders in particular withstood a B/N right across the street (which then moved a mile away) and had the advantage of keeping a staff of booksellers that became familiar faces over the years. But I agree, it really lost its way and tried to be everything to everyone.

    It became disappointing to go into the store too many times over the past few years to find whole sections shrunken out of existence. And not to be able to find the books for which I came in.