Borders, the book chain that once dreamed the impossible dream that Americans had untapped appetites for literature more complex than the 365 Tiny Paper Airplanes Page-a-Day Calendar, has landed on Wall Street’s remainder table. Last week, the company declared bankruptcy and announced it’s closing at least 200 of its 642 stores. Its stock has sunk so low you can now buy at least 100 shares of it for the cover price of a James Patterson bestseller.
If the Moby Dick of bookstores disappears completely, will anybody miss it? Amazon offers more titles. The independent shops that survived its premillenial blitzkrieg across the culturescape confer a greater aura of good taste on their patrons. WalMart and CostCo boast deeper discounts and (usually) a more encyclopedic array of scented candles.
In the early, heady days of its mid-1990s expansion, however, Borders was a bold, democratizing force, a noble attempt to liberate comprehensive, intellectually promiscuous bookstores from the insular, marginalized realm they occupied in college towns and a few big cities. Suddenly, great swaths of suburbia, whose primary points of cultural interest had previously consisted of Bed, Bath & Beyond and Chili’s Grill & Bar, had a world-class bookstore to call their own. The typical Waldenbooks or B. Dalton stocked 15,000 to 20,000 titles. Borders offered more than 100,000 titles in each location, plus a Manhattan-caliber newsrack and similarly impressive music and video sections. And it wasn’t just the breadth of its inventory that stood out, but the quality of its choices. “It’s like a mini-chain, but they have really good taste,” American Booksellers Association associate editor John Allison told the Washington Post in 1990.
Like Starbucks, another burgeoning brand intent on popularizing what had previously been the province of elitists and the cognoscenti — high-end espresso — Borders took great pains to champion its authenticity and its commitment to genuine literary bookstore culture. It stocked not only the latest releases that were generating buzz in The New Yorker and the New York Review of Books but also, say, most of Sinclair Lewis’s backlist. It piped in classical music for the right highbrow ambiance. It provided space for its patrons to curl up and get comfortable with books they had little likelihood of purchasing. It required potential employees to take a test with questions about where the works of Spinoza should be shelved and who authored The Tin Drum.
What ultimately made Borders so appealing, though, was its shortsighted, obstinate will toward bibliophiliac hegemony. Each new superstore it opened was a vivid, expensive and of course doomed proclamation that books mattered, that even the tomes of obscure postmodern literary theorists were cultural commodities as desirable as Crate and Barrel area rugs.
As it turned out, of course, America’s appetite for the works of Spinoza was not nearly as great as its appetite for frappucinos and caramel brulee lattes. And whatever appetite there was for it, Amazon could satisfy. By the early 2000s, it was pretty clear it was not a good time to be a traditional bookstore. Or a traditional music store, video store or newsrack. Borders, of course, was all of these things, meaning its future was four times as bleak as that of the average doomed bricks and mortar retailer. And yet in the face of this, it just kept leasing 40,000 square-foot boxes in the tundra of the exurbs and filling them with the minor works of Phillip Roth. It was a beautiful, futile gesture that could only end in heartbreak.