The feeling has become familiar, walking down aisles marked with signs: "Up to 40 percent off." "Store Closing. Everything Must Go."
Consider some of the recent closures in the Baltimore area: Circuit City. CompUSA. Linens 'n Things. A.C. Moore Arts & Crafts. Filene's Basement. Super Fresh. Daedalus Books & Music inBelvedere Square.
And now, one of my favorite hangouts: Borders.
The Lutherville store, which a few years ago replaced a wondrous, sprawling downtown Towson Borders Books & Music, is the latest victim of the imperfect storm that has slammed the high-pressure system of the Great Recession into the cold front of the cybereconomy.
I never know anymore which stores will still be there when I head out to run errands.
The thing is, I'm not a fan of online shopping. I like to go to places instead of portals. To feel products in my hand before buying, and ask questions if need be. To have the instant gratification of taking something home right here and now. To pay cash and leave no online trail for advertisers (or worse) to follow. Or to simply say "Hi" to a live person.
The loss of Borders is particularly devastating. In the few scant hours when my children are at preschool or summer camps, Borders has been a destination of choice: the corner café with its comfy chairs, and the chatty side-burned baristo who always engaged people in conversations about their day. Then there were the booksellers, who seemed to perk up when you sought actual advice about a book author or series.
The store was an escape, a respite: Just walking inside, getting lost in the smell of coffee and the freedom to wander down fiction book aisles, my head tilted sideways to read author's names: Stieg Larsson. Philip Roth. John Steinbeck. Virginia Woolf.
Or taking time to peruse the bargain book racks, with all the $9.99 children's books about the universe or Learn to Play a Harmonica kits you could want.
Where will I go to find cool last-minute birthday or Christmas presents that don't send me into bankruptcy? And what will happen to all the people who came here, those who gathered at the café for knitting circles or chess clubs on Wednesday mornings?
And most importantly, all those workers at all those stores who earned livelihoods. The company employed more than 10,000 workers.
I went to the Lutherville store recently after the announcement that Borders, which had been struggling in bankruptcy, could not find a buyer and was liquidating its remaining 399 stores. Among other issues, Borders couldn't keep up with the trend toward e-readers such as Amazon's Kindle, Barnes & Noble's Nook or even Apple's iPad. (Online appsters like Apple should start opening cafés, I think.)
Meanwhile, I'll shop at the closest Barnes & Noble Booksellers, or Greetings & Readings in Hunt Valley and other independent, brick-and-mortar bookstores that Borders, ironically, once sought to replace.
When I went there, the spacious Borders café was already dark — roped off, its furniture piled up. The normally tidy store was firesale-trashed, with stacks askew and discounted books scattered on the floor.
There were only two employees in sight at the front desk, both standing under an empty marquee titled "Coming Soon" near a sign that shouted "All Sales Final."
I usually avoid these big closeout sales. It hardly seems worth a 10 percent discount to experience all this sadness. But I felt I had to go, to attend a wake of sorts for a beloved friend.
I picked up a "First Grade Fun and Learning Box" that had no price and brought it up to the cashier. He looked it up on the computer. Nothing. He called back for a price check. Then he politely excused himself and went back to double check the stacks or confer with a colleague.
What does it matter, I thought, looking around at the disarray. Would Borders care if he made up a price? Say, $2.99?
But when he came back, I said nothing. He asked if I had a Borders card, and I handed him the bent, faded plastic tag on my keys, one of several totems like the Super Fresh "club card" I've yet to remove.
"That will be $7.99 with another 10 percent off," he said courteously.
And so I bought it. How could I refuse a book lover and seller who was a professional to the very end?