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.
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.