Thursday, 3 December 2009

Goodbye Borders

I love books. Not just texts - physical, printed books. They can be objects of extraordinary beauty and desirability, even in their cheapest, most mass-produced incarnations. As a consequence of this, I love bookshops. Many of my formative experiences have involved bookshops - in particular, my taste in architecture was definitively steered away from the traditional by hours of browsing in Blackwells' Art Bookshop on Broad Street in Oxford - a decent bit of building in itself. Bookshop browsing is an activity that cannot be replicated online - a combination of sight, stroll, touch and luck that expands horizons and suggests new avenues of reading.

There are a lot of great bookshops in London - not as many as there used to be, sadly, and too few in the East End - but I must admit that I harboured a guilty soft spot for Borders on Oxford Street. Why? I don't have an adequate answer - it wasn't a particularly friendly experience, although I did come to like it a great deal. Its magazine selection was superb, maybe the best in London. I liked the vastness of its stock, the sense of abundance and confidence that came across from that. I liked the view from the Starbucks over Oxford Street, even if I didn't particularly like the Starbucks. I like that fact that it rarely felt crowded (something that might explain its later undoing). Being something of an Americophile, I liked its American-ness, the coffee, the easy chairs, the superabundance of stock, the magazines - when I first visited the Oxford Street behemoth, these were unusual things in Britain. It was also convenient for me.

Pondering the book trade back when Lehman Brothers went down, I figured that Borders would be the last place to disappear - in the end, it was the first. Its confidence was all an illusion. The Oxford Street flagship closed in August, and now the rest of the company in the UK teeters on the brink of collapse. Closing-down sales have started in all branches - pillage while you can, I certainly have. The pictures accompanying this post come from my expeditions to the Oxford Street store in its dying days.

The magazine section, once the best I knew of, now gone.

Visiting the store in the last days before its closure was a sobering experience. The first time I went, I wasn't allowed in - it was overcrowded with bargain-hunters. The second time, the place had been largely cleared out, and much of the stock that remained was in a sorry state having been manhandled by shoppers.

Beyond my personal feelings of sadness, it was sobering because I realised how many thousands upon thousands of books are published every year that I wouldn't want to own even if they were being given away free. Obsolete textbooks, celebrity biographies, TV tie-ins, books about sport - that's just the most obvious crap, beyond which there's a layer of fiction and non-fiction that might be readable and interesting but I have no interest in reading in this life. It would be easy, in a suitably maudlin frame of mind, to imagine that one was taking a tour of a dying culture rather than just a dying bookshop.

I don't believe that our culture is dying, although certainly our print culture is in fairly serious trouble. But obvious collapse and decline does stir up reflection of this kind. Some time after participating in the sack of Borders I went to the Barbican to hear Brian Dillon, UK editor of the excellent Cabinet magazine, talk about the allure of ruins. Dillon described the melancholy that overcomes one in the presence of ruins as a process of falling into ruins oneself.

A leak.

Desuetude prompts navel-gazing - we often turn to look at the shadow of mortality which follows us around. And as obvious storehouses of culture, I'd say that ruined libraries, ruined books, have a particularly keen melancholy attached to them. (In the many multitudes of photographs of "the ruins of Detroit", few have the the same power to depress as the images of one of its decaying school books repositories.) Which brings me to the ur-text of ruin futurology, HG Wells' The Time Machine. In this scene, Wells' time traveller is shown the ruined library of the future, a structure ignored by the frolicking, sybaritic Eloi:

... I went out of that gallery and into another and still larger one, which at the first glance reminded me of a military chapel hung with tattered flags. The brown and charred rags that hung from the sides of it, I presently recognised as the decaying vestiges of books. They had long since dropped to pieces, and every semblance of print had left them. But here and there were warped boards and cracked metallic clasps that told the tale well enough. Had I been a literary man I might, perhaps, have moralised upon the futility of all ambition. But as it was, the thing that struck me with keenest force was the enormous waste of labour to which this sombre wilderness of rotting paper testified. At the time I will confess that I thought chiefly of the philosophical transactions and my own seventeen papers upon physical optics.

-- HG Wells, The Time Machine, Chapter 8

Confronted with the actual death of culture, the time traveller finds himself looking in the mirror again - what of his own small contribution to it? And so I suppose it was for me. A closing bookshop presents a kind of double death to a writer - their own death in a world in which everything, even the biggest and boldest things, must pass, and the prospect that their shot at immortality might not work, and come to lie amid the heaps of unsold celeb kiss-and-tell and Twilight-a-likes under a leaking roof.


Zara said...

I didn't realise it was that bad re: Borders. I had a certain inexplicable fascination with the Oxford Street store too.

Frozen Books said...

While the tat will come and go (Celebrity biographies and the like) decent books are here to stay.

I sell online (I would love a traditional shop but it is just not commercially viable) and there is no shortage of book lovers wanting to buy decent books with crackling paper and mouldy smells.

So Borders may have gone but maybe it was it's vastness and mass market stuff that let it down. I believe books have a very long life yet.

Voxphoto said...

Once upon a time, Borders was just a quirky, dedicated book shop in my home town of Ann Arbor (an early, upstairs location here: )

Borders' current global "free fall" is less of a surprise to those who watched those original values diluted and forgotten in their race to expand.

Travis said...

Wow that's quite sad... for some reason anytime a book store closes it just feels upsetting to me. While I know there are always other methods of acquiring whatever text you're looking for, few things can replace the experience that a large bookstore can impress upon a person.

Sean said...

Tell me about it. That sense of disregard, of absence, is unsettling. But try being the employees that have to shut the store down and sell off everything they've worked with in the short span of a liquidation. I worked at a Media Play (about 4 years ago now) here in the States that we, the employees, had to sell off for the liquidators. To be blunt, it was hellish. Standing, at the end, in the empty space that was your workplace was depressing and surreal all at once. I did get to throw a Frisbee in the corpse of the store with two of my coworkers before we closed it for the final time.
That, at least, was something unique in my experience.

Will said...

Zara - how's the book trade doing in China? I'd love to hear a bit about print culture in Beijing.

Frozen books - Yes, I'm certain that the physical book has plenty of life in it. And I do hope that you're right about celeb biographies. One thing that really cheers me up is the popularity of print-on-demand, something I'd like to experiement with and write about in future.

Voxphoto - thanks for filling in some of the history! That pic of the first branch is amazing. I can see how it lost its quirky appeal - but as I said in the post, one of the things that I liked about Oxford Street was its vastness and its corporate sheen. Of course I adore quirky independent stores too, but the size & style of Borders was something unfamiliar and enticing when it arrived in the UK>

Travis - Absolutely. Like the experience of a very large library, which is similarly magical.

Sean - Yeah, I feel terrible for the staff. I must admit that I felt quite guilty about taking photos, as if I was snapping someone else's road accident. And when paying for stuff the atmosphere was a little awkward - an unfolding tragedy for one, a bargain bonanza for the other. It must suck that they were so busy in the final days, as well - facing redundancy and being run off your feet by vultures.

Jessica Sideways said...

The store they had on the 29th Street Mall in Boulder was fairly fascinating. But at least, here in Boulder, we have our local bookstores.

MJA said...

just found this blog via bldgblog. i enjoyed this article, and i agree. i worked for borders for a couple years back in the 90's. i've definitely taken advantage of their existence in all the places i've lived. i don't necessarily think it's a good thing that borders has folded, but i can't really feel that much sympathy either. the book stores i feel sympathy for are the local only, family run shops that are disappearing (and i can't help but think that before the book selling behemoth, amazon, crushed not only the small shops but now even the likes of borders, that borders themselves played a large role in crushing some of the small local shops once they moved into a certain area. maybe this is, in small part, a case of what goes around, comes around). i live in san diego, california, and one of the best, and oldest local book shops, is now liquidating their inventory. going into a nice, clean, and organized borders books has it's convenience and appeal - but walking through the cramped and stacked historic aisles of wahrenbrocks 3 story book shop was an altogether different and delightful experience. i suppose i will miss them both.