It’s not cool to feel nostalgic for chain stores. There was a time in the 1990s when the thing to do was resent massive chains for driving mom-and-pop places out of business.
Still, though. My memory of visiting my first Borders, a hideous brick complex off I-95 in Delaware, is surprisingly vivid. My parents, who had always been overly generous about letting me buy books and music, drove me over to the store and let me loose. I was 15 or so, just getting into weird texts about religion and forgotten power pop and punk bands. This store, so quiet and well-appointed, had all of it. There were CDs on sale that I’d only read about online. I grabbed some stuff, marveled at the discount, and headed up.
It was tough to fabricate reasons to head up that way on I-95, but soon enough another store opened up 10 minutes from our house. Already, I was into politics, but didn’t know much about the world outside Time and Newsweek. Here was a store with six magazine racks and unfamiliar offerings like The Nation and National Review and In These Times and Reason.
I just loved walking through the store. I loved browsing new books that hadn’t made it to the library. I loved seeing which magazines had come in. When I was 17 I applied for a job at the store, failed the interview (I didn’t know what the protocol was for dealing with a hostile customer), and settled for some temp job in a bank. It was a bummer; that employee discount would have been used and abused by a college-bound quasi-snob who would read anything he could get his hands on, and watch any weird movie that got a good write-up online.
When I moved to Washington in 2004, I would kill time in Borders. If there was a sale on, I’d buy fresh stuff. I’d pick up magazines that I wanted to pitch stories to. When I visited my parents, and wanted to hang out with my dad, we’d drive to the store, grab coffee, and sift through a pile of new age religion books (him) and comics or political bios (me).
Ah, well. In 2011, no one needs to search for slightly-off-mainstream books or movies anymore. Anything can be bought on Amazon. Most things can be rented on Netflix. The thousands of dollars I spent at Borders were mostly given over to things I don’t use anymore. But the place educated me, despite myself, and it gave my family an outlet for its nerdy, introverted kid, and a place to hang out with my brother. I’ll miss it.