Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Borders/Barnes & Noble

This is a post about how I love Borders and Barnes & Noble.

I have not always been comfortable with that love. I have friends who feel very strongly about the importance of the independent bookstore. They command the facts much better than I do. I know nothing about economics or community-building or the dangers of massive media control. Let us assume, for purposes of this post, that big chain bookstores will destroy the world. I still love them.

I grew up in an era where B. Dalton and Waldenbooks were kings of the mall. I suspect that, undying distinguisher between things that I am, I had a favorite. Probably B. Dalton. The name seems vaguely sunnier; I remember the lettering as orange. These things make a difference.

It doesn't matter. They both sucked. They were small and cramped and had almost nothing that you would actually want to read. And they wouldn't let you read the books there.

There were also independent bookstores. I was lucky enough to grow up next to a pretty good independent bookstore. But I am here to remind you all that there were a lot of really and truly shitty independent bookstores out there. Bookstores where they hated to see you even open the books, bookstores which stocked the complete works of Robertson Davies and pretty much nothing else, bookstores which deeply resented the presence of children. You know the bookstores I'm talking about; it's all coming back to you now.

Those bookstores are no good for me. I never go to a bookstore knowing what I want to read. I go to a bookstore in a certain mood and I look for something that will satisfy my mood. More often a blend of books that holds the promise of satisfying my mood. A cocktail of books. This can take me several hours, especially since I often use the time to catch up on the endings of the major works of recently published modern fiction.

All this can, sort of, be accomplished at the library. But the library is usually not open until midnight. Also, and this is perhaps a little pathetic, sometimes you want the books to be fresh and new. Because in a dingy and beat-up world new books make my heart a little lighter.

There are, in fact, some independent bookstores that are as good or better for these purposes than the relevant chains. Elliot Bay Book Co. in Seattle, Cody's in Berkeley, Book Soup in West Hollywood, etc. Sometimes, for that matter, you want an independent bookstore: for particular books, for particular kinds of books, for your mood. Sometimes you want that cutting-edge or cheerfully communal or vaguely sneering feeling. Sometimes you want the fun Russian roulette effect of the used bookstore, where you have no idea what's in stock. When I was in New York I lived next to the Last Word bookstore and went there every day on my way home from class. (This may suggest that my impassioned defense of Borders has more to do with its proximity to my apartment than anything else.)

A quick note about the Last Word: not only a prince among used bookstores but home to an exceptionally beautiful employee. He would ask me for a cigarette and I would feel honored, honestly. One day I was in there and he was talking to a friend/customer about his recent breakup and he said, "Yeah, it wasn't going to work out. She wanted to start a family and I wanted to start a revolution."

I really love my local Borders. It makes me happy that it's there, that it's open so late, that it has such an infinite number of books and so many little tables marked "Great Reads" and "Paperback Classics."

A friend pointed out that he actually makes a distinction between Borders and B&N; I can no longer remember which he preferred. I'm all for Borders, for the same reasons I think I preferred B. Dalton so long ago.

This post was inspired by this post by Mr. Secretary.


The Secretary said...

By "inspired" I take it you mean "driven to a burning desire to present a contrary and opposite point of view to the annoying, glib, and cliched viewpoints expressed in the Secretary's post". But thank you for the shout out.

Captain Colossal said...


Not that I thought your views were annoying, glib, or cliched.

Charlie said...

I sort of like it when big chain bookstores drive small, "quirky", hipster-employing competitors out of business. I mean, this is America.

But then again I tend to root for Walmart when I watch anti-Walmart documentaries.