On a rainy Monday afternoon in Burlington, Vermont, I wander past the whole-grain sandwich shops and slick ethnic bistros of the Church Street pedestrian mall, drawn by invisible magnets towards the retail zone’s centerpiece—Borders bookstore, a substantial brick building as set against time as the Parthenon. A couple of guys stand around the entrance holding up black and yellow cardboard signs: Up to 40% off all stock! Everything must go! I’ve come to pay my last respects to the dying giant.
Borders is a fluorescent-lit terrarium of humanity, a public sanctuary from the world. The standardized floor plan, with its familiar grid of aisles and subject sections replicated across America, is now so familiar that most could find their way through it sleepwalking. Inside the Burlington store, the familiar cheery ambiance that Borders is known for remains relatively intact. College students lie in the aisles studying for the LSATs, babysitters kill time reading to kids, young moms buy puzzles and DVDs in anticipation of Christmas. Even in its last days, the fluorescent lights are still bright and the shelves are still full of books. But the mood has changed and telltale signs of decay have set in. The café is shuttered with no explanation other than a scrawled handwritten note: Sorry, closed! Tables of books are piled up in front of it to prevent anyone from going in. There is a rushed, Black Friday vibe in the air. Smelling blood in the water, the bargain hunters are here, plowing headlong through the store in search of a bargain. There is a long line at the checkout counter full of frowning people, holding their lightly discounted books, puzzles, and DVDs, most of them looking lost in thought, perhaps wondering where they will hang out from now on. Forty percent off is a poor consolation prize for a social scene. The only other place where people can read, nap, gather, or otherwise waste an afternoon is the distant Barnes and Noble, located deep out in the sprawl a car ride away.
With bookstores disappearing, it sometimes seems like a modern day gesture of Rockefellarian generosity to reproduce these big-box repositories of human knowledge in little towns and suburbs with relatively few resources. In Borders across the country, homeless people nap in plushy armchairs and read the newspaper. Foreigners pick up the same book day after day and learn English. Kids who don’t have the money for expensive test prep courses hang out and read study guides. The chain bookstore has become more valuable to the public trust than underfunded public libraries.
Which has its pitfalls. While Burlington is a safe, affluent hippie town mostly known as the birthplace of the band Phish, the Burlington Borders is the only bookstore I’ve ever been to that requires tokens to use the restrooms. I ask an employee about it and his eyes widen. “We put the token system in about a year ago. For a long time, Borders was the public restroom for all of Burlington. Anything you could imagine was going on in there—Sex, drug dealing, thieving. I’m also certain there was prostitution. It was disgusting.”
Up at the employee info desk, a morose-looking Borders associate fields my questions—How much longer will she have a job? Is the company going to offer employees unemployment, or some kind of severance package? What’s going to happen with this prime retail space on Church Street? She shakes her head and shrugs to each question, ”Everything is uncertain. We don’t know anything.” I meet another employee named Sean, an eleven-year Borders veteran who shows it, looking disheveled and tired in his late thirties. I ask him what people are going to do next. “I’m hoping to get a job at Barnes and Noble,” he says.
Standing on the landing of the stairs looking down upon aisles and aisles of fresh, inviting-looking books, a feeling of loss comes over me as I realize it’s probably the last time I will ever set foot in a Borders. Having been a serial loiterer in Barnes and Noble and Borders since middle school, I often feel more at home in a chain bookstore than wherever I’m living. I wonder how long Barnes and Noble will last without a competitor to struggle against. It’s probably only a matter of time before they shutter their doors as well, and then where will suburban teenagers hang out? In the suburbs, Barnes and Noble is often the only place for people to come together, drink coffee, and browse books, and its loss would be a devastating blow. But would it be worse if Barnes and Noble, instead of shuttering their doors, continued to live on as some kind of digitized shadow of their former self—slowly removing shelves of books year by year and replacing them with Nook kiosks until the space is as frigid and alien as a cell-phone store.
Across the street from Borders, there is a little independent bookstore called Crow Bookshop. It’s the kind of place once romanticized in now-outmoded movies about the David and Goliath struggle between independent and corporate businesses, and the kind of store analysts hope will experience a resurgence after the decline of the big chains. I leave Borders and head over. A couple of people peruse the store’s few shelves of books, dedicated mostly to local authors and new titles. There’s no air-conditioning and it’s very stuffy. There’s no music playing and the only sounds are the creaking of the hardwood floors and the clearing of throats. Without anonymity or personal space, it’s the kind of bookstore where you have to come in knowing what you want to buy. Where the owner knows your name. Where it always feels like the salespeople are asking “Can I help you with anything?” with their eyes. The man beside me tells his wife, “I’m going outside, it’s too warm,” and then walks out. I walk out quickly behind him.