Thinking Inside the Big Box: Borders Was a Place to Read, Discover a Band, and Fall in Love

By Dougherty, Michael Brendan | The American Conservative, October 2011 | Go to article overview
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Thinking Inside the Big Box: Borders Was a Place to Read, Discover a Band, and Fall in Love


Dougherty, Michael Brendan, The American Conservative


"Ma'am, I'm sorry to say that the way things are, our customer service isn't what it used to be," said the haggard twentysomething. "We can't locate books in the store the way we used to."

The mean old lady pointed at his face. "You're not doing your job!"

"I'm losing my job, ma'am, that's what I'm doing."

Somehow I wasn't prepared for the liquidation of Borders in my new hometown, Mount Kisco, New York, to be this depressing. I told the young man I was sorry he had to be harangued at a time when student loans and near 10 percent unemployment already stalked him. "You want to see human nature accurately? Come to a close-out sale," he said, brushing it off. Both floors of the mega-bookstore were buzzing with people in a way I hadn't seen since the final days before Christmas, when Amazon's shipping is harder to rely on.

Unfortunately, Borders made all the mistakes that Barnes and Noble hasn't, and so they are the first big-box book chain to die. Borders invested in retail space for CDs and DVDs as music and film became digitized and physical sales plummeted; neighboring chains like Best Buy sold such things as loss leaders. Borders signed long leases on overvalued commercial lots. But it was Amazon's success that doomed them. Borders became a kind of showroom for Amazon's warehouse. As with retail chains like FYE before them, Borders began filling its space with Moleskine notebooks, overpriced "reading lights," and kitten-photo calendars--high-profit impulse-buy items, things no one specifically goes to a bookstore to buy. This signaled the end was near.

In the mid-90s when all I had to do was tell my driver's-licensed friends that "We need to make a run," they knew it meant an afternoon spent at Borders in Danbury, Connecticut, followed by Taco Bell and maybe mini-golf. To my mind, Borders had every book and CD available. I'd even set the date of our next "run" based on the release schedule for upcoming CDs.

The loss of Borders is the loss of little rituals. I used to stroll through a new section to see if any spine would interest me--and often one did. I would walk from that store with five new CDs and have to decide which one would be the first opened and played on the ride back down I-84. Now I browse blogs to find new interests and use the "Surprise Me" option on Amazon. I sample every song on an album before buying the two or three singles that interest me. My mother would be ashamed to know I own just one track from the Rolling Stones' "Exile on Main Street.

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