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July 30, 2011 / missmarymax

On Borders, Proper and Common

Borders is closing.

Borders Closing - Raelmifi

Borders Closing - Raelmifi. (Some rights reserved.)

Last week, they e-mailed a mass message to this effect, and I’ll admit that — reading it — I felt a bit “gawker” or “spy.” Thank you for your support, they said. Thank you for fighting for us. …But it’s been years since I swore off Borders, longer — even — than it’s been since I swore off Amazon.  I haven’t bought an item there in years; in fact, I’ve tried on more than one occasion to talk other people out of buying items there, items easily bought (or ordered) through an indie store.  I’ve felt vaguely guilty just loitering in Borders, buying coffee there, for instance — never mind actively supporting them.  So, when the news broke, and all my fellow bibliophiles were posting tearful tributes and declaring the world’s hell-in-a-handbasket-ed-ness, I felt like walking into the onslaught of Internet traffic with glow sticks. Redirecting the meme.

Indeed, I was all set to dust off my soapbox and explain it to y’all.  How this is not about the death of bookstores, the triumph of the Man, the disregard for all things literate.  This is about the triumph of indie stores, the standing by them, the notion that we need to buy local and indie, not monopolistic and mass-produced.

So I yelled without opening my mouth…

And then I stumbled across a Facebook conversation between two of my high school friends.  Two friends who grew up with me, equally suffocated by small-town small-mindedness, equally gasping for air.  Like me, they’ve since escaped the homefront that felt more like a front line: he’s gone to Chicago, she’s gone to L.A.  They’ve blossomed into marvelous, glitterful, radtastic adults.  Living in cities (relatively) rife with indie bookstores.  Yet, they moan and ache and mourn for Borders.

They do so in memory of what Borders was: not the gigantic corporation leaning on the little guy, not the national chain that would happily carve its collection down to Danielle Steele and James Patterson, but Borders — when Borders was all we had.  Borders when Borders was the gigantic bookstore that opened thirty minutes from town– a hop, skip, and a highway from the place where we were tearing our hair out, a world with coffee and culture and floors and floors of books.  It’s nearly impossible for me to remember now, — the Borders they describe.  The Borders that was a haven for people who thought and read and thought about what they read.  To remember when two floors of books felt more like heaven than a capitalist ploy.  But with a little help, reading their words, I started to remember.

I remembered when Borders was not an easy alternative to the local bookstore, but rather the only bookstore — the bookstore that sprouted out of the concrete years after our local store gave way.  I remembered the awe I felt when I first learned I really could take books or magazines or anything else I liked into the cafe, even sit there and read them — while nomming and noshing away — without ruffling one employee-feather.  (I remembered how much more this meant when libraries did not have self-service checkouts and every potentially intriguing read was monitored through the watchful eye of people who knew your parents, and your teachers, and your friends’ parents and teachers.)  I remembered standing in the poetry section for the nine millionth time, paging through my first collection of slam poets, a book I’d later hide behind my geometry textbook, and read in-class to keep alive.  And I remembered turning, cheeks flushed with shame and fear and rush — to run my eye across the titles in the Gay and Lesbian section.  I remembered what it meant, then, to find myself reflected in a book that didn’t turn out to be all that great, but had a purple spine, a girl who pierced and tattooed other girls, a title that allowed for shyness.

Remembering this Borders didn’t change all the other things that Borders was.  It didn’t make me wish I’d never quit shopping there, hadn’t chosen — instead — to support the local stores I would wince and weep to see fall into the tide.  It didn’t change all the realities and practices that led me down an indie-book-buying road in the first place.  But suddenly, that road could co-exist with the one I’d known at thirteen, the one my friends remembered, in spite of a decade-and-a-half-long gap.  And, realizing this, I realized again how many meanings any given moment can hold.

I have a tendency to grab at meaning with all my might, to write it up pretty and strong and surefooted.  I protect against all my years of uncertainty, my still-lingering terror at an opinion erased, by knowing what things are and what they mean with certainty.  And then, every so often, I get a reminder.  That the very same experience, the very same act, the very same choice — can mean some very different things.  Simultaneously.  And within a single person.

The same act that breaks me can make me strong.

I can grieve a loss I’m relieved to experience.

I can be wise and thoroughly fledgling.  A contradiction that does not contradict.

And I can be these things — with the most awareness — when I agree to stand in these borderlands, and realize how necessarily all our meanings coexist.

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6 Comments

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  1. Amelia Jane / Jul 31 2011 9:58 am

    I liked Borders…they had the largest range of independent magazines of any shop in town; it’s where I could buy ‘Amelia’s Magazine’ and browse local zines…I’m sure I could have hunted around for local comic shops and so on, but it was always nice to see small print run endeavours in a multi-national store.

    • missmarymax / Aug 8 2011 7:51 pm

      Your Borders sounds infinitely cooler than mine was. (Apparently, they varied a lot by location.) But that said, even the fairly mainstream stores they had near me… were life-saving in a specific context and time.

  2. slipoutside / Jul 31 2011 4:48 pm

    I agree with you in that I hate buying things from large corporations and all that jazz. However the borders in my town was the only book store with stuff I would read. I literally went to my local book stores and with in three visits to one I bought all of their books I would read and the other in six visits. I think my borders ordered books as to what people were buying because the first time I went there the leftist thing they had was Steinbeck, Orwell and a book about CHE and Mao. By last week they had books WRITTEN by Lenin, Che, Marx, Engels, and even chairman Mao. It was literally the only place I could get book that I will read.

    • missmarymax / Aug 8 2011 7:53 pm

      Thanks for making this point. It underscores for me how lucky I am where I live and how much that plays into my (now somewhat qualified) anti-Borders position. I’m likely to find great stuff at the local stores here, and if I don’t, the fantastic staff is marvelous about ordering it on my behalf. But is that the case everywhere? Is that the case for everyone? I can’t really speak to that. I can just point out the ways I know to go about it, and hope that they’ll be enough to support the too-few bookstores (of all types) that are still around.

  3. Bulimic Anonymous / Jul 31 2011 11:12 pm

    Thanks for this perspective Mary! It is one I certainly never would have come to on my own, having grown up in a big city with myriad choices for everything. In high school my group used to hang out in a little local bookshop with a cantankerous old owner who loved us in that barely tolerating us sort of way… and he had to close down when Borders moved into the neighborhood. I don’t hate Borders, but I had a similar reaction to folks lamenting its loss. I know full well that I cannot imagine what it must be like living in a place where the intellectual and cultural mecca is a big corporate bookstore for lack of other options.

    • missmarymax / Aug 8 2011 7:59 pm

      Right. And while I don’t think we should sacrifice indie bookstores to Borders, I also don’t want to see us sacrifice both to, say, Wal-Mart’s book section. One of the questions that struck me about this turn of events is how fast I & others responded to the chain’s closing, when we weren’t nearly so quick to try and keep it open. It got me worried about indie stores, which are of course closing in droves. Why isn’t there a more organized attempt (by non-booksellers) to keep them alive? I’m totally incriminating myself in this question because the only action I seem to take around this is the how-I-spend-my-dollar kind. And while that’s a valuable kind, it is not the only thing I could be doing, given how firmly I believe access to quality books is a vital tenet of socially just communities. We’re doing a lot, in many cases, to protect our local stores. But why isn’t it connected cross-regionally, the way the fights for public education, or Internet access, or health are connected? Or does that more unified fight exist and I’m just unaware of it.

      Oh, Borders. Looks like you’re going to educate me if it’s the last thing you do. 😉

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