Tag Archives: bookstores

Saying Goodbye to Borders

Today was not a good day. I made my last purchase at Borders, well, Borders.com, using up the balance on a gift card my girlfriend gave me.

As I navigated their unwieldy website, I couldn’t help but remember my first times at the store, and how regretful I am at its closing.

[Cue Corny Flashback Music]

I remember shopping at the Borders in the White Flint Mall in Rockville. You took an escalator to the second floor, which deposited you right on the shop floor. When I was a kid, that escalator ride felt magical. I was a nerd, and I liked reading. Plus, my mom was particularly indulgent when it came to books. Any book I wanted I could get. They were always the same young adult paperbacks, George Selden, E.B. White, Jerry Spinelli, that sort of thing, but to me each one was a discovery. I remember waking up before school to read The Egypt Game in bed, feeling at peace paging through the paperback’s pulpy newness. I may have been uninterested in the books on my school’s curriculum, but the books I bought at the Borders I carted around like treasure.

Soon, I migrated out of the young adult stacks to literature, and by seventh grade I got involved with the Russians. I probably read more Dostoevsky than was healthy at that age, or any age. This led me to a community college class in Russian, just one of the many eccentric moments of my middle school career.

Sure, I shopped at other bookstores. But Borders didn’t have the moldy smell of Second Story Books in Rockville, and wasn’t always deserted like the Waldenbooks. Not to mention Barnes and Noble, and the armed guards they hire to hassle patrons—or the large Nook kiosk they ironically set up at their entrances.

I remember my aunt taking me to the Borders in Farmington Hills on my birthday and buying me all sorts of classics that she said I had to read immediately in order to be considered educated. I never did, but the Herodotus did look pretty nice on my bookshelf.

Of course, by college I had moved on, and was more interested in college bookstores than anything chain. Only when my mom moved to Ann Arbor a few years ago did I really start to reconsider Borders. Located in the center of town on State Street, “Store #1” felt like the beating heart of a book-hungry town. Where else but Ann Arbor would book vendors set up in the middle of the night on East Liberty to hawk paperbacks? Sure, you could notice signs of decay, but why look? I wasn’t buying as many books, but I did try to spend a few hours there every time I visited home.

I know Borders is no mom and pop, and for most people, it was another link of a chain of strip malls stretching across America, but for me it remains meaningful. There just aren’t enough bookstores in the world for me to feel anything but displeasure when one closes. And I can’t help but think that shutting down those kinds of places where ideas thrive is a harbinger of bad things to come.

Two Bookstores

Metropolis (Left) and inside the Last Bookstore (Right)

Los Angeles has just about everything, but it doesn’t have that many great bookstores. Sure, there’s Book Soup in West Hollywood, and out in Pasadena there is Vroman’s. But if you live in West LA like me you’re hard pressed to find anything more than a storefront in a strip mall or a Barnes & Noble. I could rattle off a couple of independent video stores I like that are mere walking distance from my apartment, but as for books, forget it. It may be the wrong medium for this town, but I tend to get nostalgic.

There are two bookstores in downtown that reverse that trend, both one block between each other. They represent two business models, and their experience gives a bit of insight into the future of independent booksellers in this country.

Metropolis Books

This is a little gem of a store tucked away next to an abandoned movie theatre on Main. A refuge from the grit of the Arts District, it has all of the charm of a favorite aunt’s home—couches, fans, and a friendly dog resting near the entrance, not to mention very kind staff.

Metropolis has some specialties like mystery, horror, fantasy, and science fiction. It even has a nice young adult nook at the back that would make Judy Blume proud. There is a used bookshelf in the corner, but most of the stuff on sale are crisp hardbacks and paperbacks. Some of the titles are too expensive for my budget, so when I look through the stacks, I make a mental note to compare the prices to those on Amazon.

And that’s my problem, I love Metropolis Books, but I can’t quite afford its selection. This points to a larger problem in the bookselling community: I am not a fan of the e-book, but the prices do look good—seven or eight dollars less than the list. Call it a failing of my generation but we will always mentally comparison shop between bricks and mortar and whatever’s online.  I want great independent bookstores like Metropolis to exist forever, because they support great independent authors, but I wonder if the competition is far too intense.

The Last Bookstore

The Last Bookstore sits just north of Metropolis next to a quaint little restaurant, The Banquette Café. It just opened last year and has already won Best New Business from The Los Angeles Downtown News. And it does deserve a nod. The staff is friendly and the book selection (almost all used) is strong and eclectic. I could just as easily find a book on philosophy as one on food, or history. Unlike Metropolis, they don’t specialize in any genre, but they do have a great literature section. In fact, there’s an entire shelf in back devoted to local poets and prose writers.

The Last Bookstore, perhaps because it is run with such youthful enthusiasm, hosts a plethora of events. Almost every month’s art walk brings another reading or music performance. The shop is always busy, especially with young hipsters, and sometimes I can’t even find a seat at the table in back.

Yet, there are very few new books on sale. Their business model is good—used books can be bought at a fraction of the price and are easy to resell. Let’s face it, most readers aren’t sticklers for clean-looking pages. The Last Bookstore is not just a tongue in cheek nod to 1984; this is the last place books are sold. Authors and publishers make no money on the merchandise. I love the store, but I worry the name is a self-fulfilling prophecy: if there were only last bookstores, there would be no authors and no new books.

I spend more money at the Last Bookstore, by far, but I can’t help but think this isn’t doing much for the book buying economy. Secondhand bookstores will always exist; even in an internet economy they can do most of their business online because there still is a market for old or out of print books. And as much as I like the model, I can’t help but feel nostalgic for those places that weren’t the last, the places you come to find books first, the kind of stores that are quietly disappearing.