The last of the Borders bookstores closed over the weekend, ending an era for booklovers. Rachel, of Booksellers Without Borders, offers a glimpse into her happy days working at Borders. Our final elegy to a retail icon whose warm, friendly stores made so many of us feel at home.
“Hi! My name is Rachel, and I’m a recovering Borders bookseller.”
I’ve been using that line for the past few months, ever since my home store, Borders #517 (Lincoln Village) on the north side of Chicago, closed last April. It feels even more appropriate now, after closing my second store last Friday: Borders 405, also in Chicago, on State Street downtown. Even after working that first brutal two-month liquidation, watching my beloved home store get torn to shreds, and finally losing my job—when I was asked to come back and do it all over again, I said yes. I couldn’t help myself. I went on another six-week Borders binge. My last. This time, for real.
If you have ever walked into a bookstore during business hours and felt that it was an oasis of calm in the middle of a chaotic world, imagine being there when it is closed. I spent several years pulling myself out of bed before dawn in order to be at Borders by 6am. I am not a morning person, not at all, but four hours of uninterrupted shelving time before we opened each day was too enticing. There was something cathartic about spending those quiet hours in the stacks, putting my sections in order, and making the books look pretty. I would slip off my shoes, tie up my hair, and get down to the very serious business of section maintenance. (Note: I do not recommend customers ever walk around a retail location without shoes.)
Being a bookseller gave me an appreciation not just for the content of books, but for their physical bodies. I like that they have heft, weight, and corners that can inflict real damage when they fall on your head. I can look at the space on a shelf, table, or display and tell you how many copies will fit there, in multiple configurations. Filling in the new mass-market table was my favorite Tuesday morning activity—a three-dimensional puzzle, a biblio Rubik’s cube—taking into account release date, quantity, color, and popularity.
More than the books themselves, though, were the opportunities to find them good homes. I helped teachers plan their classroom libraries and students choose books for term papers. A 10-year-old boy asked me for reading recommendations—he had just finished Freakonomics, and wanted to know what other interesting non-fiction books we had. As a blizzard was rolling in, about to dump two feet of snow on us, a man walked into our store and simply said, “Tell me what to read for the next few days.” You can’t get that kind of interaction when you order books online. You just can’t.
Once, I caught myself looking around for my boss after I realized I had been talking to a customer about trends in Young Adult fiction for about 15 minutes. Then I realized that showing her all my favorite YA titles was actually part of my job description, and I wasn’t going to get fired over it. I left work that day feeling very lucky.
Borders was my home for five years, and Borders booksellers are my family. I am heartbroken to have lost the stores, the bookselling teams, and the customers as a part of my daily life. We were a ragtag bunch, heavy on the art and liberal-arts degrees, but light on pretentiousness. We shared our reading lives and our real lives indiscriminately. Most of us never planned to stay for very long, but found it hard to leave. I’m glad I saw it through to the end, but I hope never to be faced with such a depressing task as closing down a bookstore again. If you want to see what I mean, check out the photo essay, The Ghosts of Borders Past.
Borders, we already miss you.
So long, and thanks for all the books.
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