Memories of Borders That Was: With References to Firefly Cuz I Can

See here’s how it is: Borders got used up, so we created a whole new internet of bookstores, some rich and flush with new ideas, some not so much. Borders and Amazon, thems formed an alliance, waged war to bring everyone under their rule. A few idiots tried to fight it, among them, myself. I’m Malcolm Reynolds and I’ve lost the thread of what I was saying.

I went to Borders today. I’ve been to at least five different Borders locations since the closing announcement. I’ve made excuses, saying I’m looking to pick up a cheap copy of Philippa Ballantine’s Geist and Spectyr books as well as a the Advanced Pathfinder Player’s Guide. Today I made my last trip to Borders, but my last trip to Borders that was had already happened  months ago.

I think it was a Tuesday. It’s a better story if I went on a Tuesday so I’m going with it. I was looking for wireless internet and a new moleskine notebook. Maybe I wanted to buy some comics or discount hardcovers the size of birthday cakes.

I sat down with a pile of somewhere between 10 and 30 discount books: some reference, some obscure, one copy of an illustrated Tao Te Ching. I hooked up my laptop up to the net and began my ill-fated attempt to make money on the internet selling the ignominious “Man sack” while flipping through giant full colored books of dream symbolism or Native American weaponry.

Then I reset my internet connection because it wasn’t working. Halfway in to uploading a JPEG file from Borders Cafe to the textile company I’d been working with, the Borders router had decided I needed to reagree to the terms of use.

This was frustrating but only slightly. I reagreed, reset the upload, and went and bought myself one of their deliciously no-longer-available cafe sandwiches. Maybe it was actually delicious. Maybe not. I’ll never know because all the Borders Cafes are shut down now. I only have my memories, which say it was wonderful.

When I came back, I needed to reset the connection again. And then again. I talked to the very friendly behind-register-dude. He scratched his apricot colored goatee and said that’s the way its been for months.

He wasn’t lying. Ever since I’d been trying to find a permanent wifi haunt, Borders had been a frustrating in its inability to stay connected. I remember not having this difficulty two years ago when I last spent significant amounts of time at Borders Cafe surfing the web.

From December to February, I kept trying different Borders locations, thinking it was maybe just a specific store with the problem or that it had been user error- but across the Northern Virginia area not a single Borders had a reliably functioning internet that I could find. They did, however, have books and sandwiches.

I bought my Borders Plus membership last January, before the first Borders started liquidating, and kept showing up periodically at Borders stores, occasionally making a purchase when it was at least within a few dollars of the Amazon price.

It was a tiny thing, the internet failures, but when Borders became inhopsitable to the point that I’d rather go to Barnes & Noble despite their lack of electrical outlets (what’s up with that?) I knew there was something flawed that was crawling to the surface.

At the Tyson’s Corner Borders Liquidation Sale, where just a week prior I had attended a book talk, I had huge hand-fulls of books I desired but were just simply still cheaper on Amazon.

A week before that Borders shut down for good, its deeply slashed finalized prices and beaten up copies of graphic novels could not complete with Amazon, especially when they informed me at the register they had to open all the shrink-wrapped merchandise I had bought as gifts and black out the bar-codes.

I don’t deny that Borders had an impact on mom and pop bookstores though I also have many found memories of Borders that was- dates that ran long because we just had too much fun perusing the bookshelves, my college graduation where I received three hundred dollars of borders gift cards and the resulting exuberant book spree with my then-girlfriend, and more.

But there was no denying as I kept going to Borders to try to give them my money, to at least use their cafe if not their book store, that it was like visiting the alcoholic relative who is slowly self destructing. They were glad you were there, they knew it was better for you to be there, but they still just wanted to be left alone to die.

I read Paul Constant’s wonderful post on his experience working at Borders at the Stranger and second many of sentiments about the way Borders “felt” in the late 90’s. I grew up in a suburban neighborhood where, before Borders, if you wanted a book you went to Crown Books, a discount bookstore that was not noted for its selection of the niche, obscure, or noteworthy.

When Crown Books closed, I mourned, for it was where I had purchased my first works by John Keats, Philip K. Dick, and Dan Simmons but I still had Borders- where I could see more than one book by these authors and also get a tasty beverage. For a time it wasn’t just a retail store, it felt like a place to go.

Somewhere in there, I don’t know when, Borders that was died on the inside. I stopped hearing about open mics or acoustic music performances in the cafes. I started hearing authors talking about how they’d rather not show up to their own signings at a Borders.

Maybe such a transition was inevitable as Borders went from up and coming threat with a powerful new business plan to one of the established giants. Maybe it was fundamental shifts in how the corporation approached the idea of what the Borders “experience” should be. But I do know it lost touch with its customers.

I remember at some point we used to say “Let’s go hang out at Borders” when we had nothing to do. One friend would spend hours reading the one rack of Manga available (back in the days when Rama 1/2 was still new to American audiences) while I’d peruse the scifi and writer manuals. We’d kill an afternoon in a Borders and usually spent money on something while just enjoying being at Borders.

Every trip to Borders since then reminded me of hooking up with an ex-girlfriend, trying to rekindle something wonderful that maybe never really existed but certainly doesn’t exist now- this idea of the bookstore behemoth where you could be lost in the stacks and find solace, like a library that lets you drink coffee too!

But that was Borders that was and somewhere along the way it changed- maybe we did too- till what remained was metaphorically a wasteland, like the dreams of Firefly’s Earth that was, something we remember but never visit.

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