On Borders, Proper and Common
Borders is closing.
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.