This morning's Cleveland Plain Dealer carried a sad headline: Borders, the nation's second largest bookstore, was liquidating, and its 10700 employees will be unemployed by the end of September.
I first became familiar with Borders in law school, when there were only two of them: the first Borders in Ann Arbor, and one other store in suburban Detroit. I had never seen a bookstore like that Borders in Ann Arbor, one filled with serious, even scholarly books, a place where browsing was encouraged and where customers could spend hours perusing the collection. It soon became one of my favorite places in Ann Arbor, a place I went to relax and to forget about the stress of law school.
One particular incident stands out. I was admiring Norman Davies' magisterial history of Poland, God's Playground, when a stranger came up and asked why I was looking at that book. Thinking he was an Ann Arbor crank, I rather brusquely asked why he cared. "Because I wrote it," came the reply. There followed an enjoyable conversation, in which I learned that Davies was in Ann Arbor for a lecture to a Polish-American group. The lecture, too, was enjoyable: a scathing speech on the perfidy of Soviet Communism.
Of course, the Borders bookstores that spread across America as a chain never matched the original Borders in Ann Arbor. And, in some communities, I fear that Borders did contribute to the demise of quality independent bookstores. But, in many other communities, those Borders bookstores brought a wide selection of books that simply had not been there before, and they did offer a place where people could come and browse and get lost in the world of books for a time. All good things, I think. And now, all gone.
I hope that other bookstores fare better than Borders did, because the experience of spending time in a good bookstore can never be replaced by the impersonal world of shopping for books online, just as the experience of holding a good book in your hands and of building a good library at home can never be replaced by a "Kindle." But I fear the grim reaper of cyberspace is just getting warmed up.
Thomas Piatak is a contributing editor to Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture. He writes from Cleveland, Ohio.