Without Borders

Borders Book Shop on High Ridge Road. Photo by Kathleen O'Rourke

When the Borders Books on High Ridge Road announced its doors were closing a few months ago, I witnessed a mad rush of customers eager to scoop up the last of the ailing store’s goods. Interminably long lines snaked through the store, through the rifled, half-empty shelves stamped with bright orange 70% off stickers. People rushed around with teetering stacks of marked-down books piled under their chins, bumped into each other in the aisles between the shelves and waited, largely without complaint, for long stretches of time before taking home their bounty. In a strange way, it gave me a little prick of hope — surely, the thronging crowds jostling around the shelves meant that there were still those who cared about books of the old-fashioned, ink-and-paper variety.

Like everyone else, I rooted through the shelves, hoping to find something that might have escaped my eye during the many visits I’d made to Borders over the years, or to at least pick up one of those books I’d always been meaning to buy at half the price. Distracted by the chaos and unable to decide, I came away with a strange collection of titles: Down and Out in Paris and London by George Orwell, the title of which felt fittingly resigned, Middlemarch by George Eliot, a collection of essays by Zadie Smith and an obscure novel by Rainer Maria Rilke, a purchase which felt satisfyingly like one of those overlooked gems I’d been hoping to find (Middlemarch subsequently took up a large swath of my time and imagination, but more on that later).

When the news came out that the entire Borders franchise was doomed, I felt those same sad pricklings of nostalgia. I feel that I’ve grown up with Borders, not simply as a place to buy books but as a place where I’ll admit I spent a good portion of my childhood, specifically at the large, seemingly unchangeable outpost on High Ridge Road. Few places felt so calm and collected; it was the natural destination on sultry, unbearable summer afternoons, or on those frigid, pre-Christmas days when the downtown mall became too much to endure and I welcomed a quiet space to hunt for appropriate books to press on my relatives as gifts.

I loved the scent of the books on the shelves, a crisp, slightly acidic mixture of ink, glue and paper that smelled watery and tangy and pleasingly academic. I loved that I could amass a wobbly stack of books I knew I wasn’t going to buy and plunk them on a small table in the café, trying not to dribble crumbs in the spines as I read through them for hours. I loved the big, glossy slabs of travel books that were usually piled at the entrance, entreating with their splashy covers and National Geographic logos. And I will miss the little boxes of Lindt truffles lined up at the checkout counter, where for an extra 50 cents you could slip one into your bag of books and eat it as you walked out of the store. A small thing, maybe, but I will miss it all the same.

Of course, there are always other bookstores to visit; the mall’s sprawling, two-story Barnes and Noble and its café have become my new haunt for book browsing and crumb-dribbling, and I like even better the cramped, comfortable feel of some of the smaller independent bookshops in the area. But Borders’ departure brings up the unsettling, inevitable question: if they couldn’t survive, how many others will follow?

It’s a concern that I hope, perhaps vainly, won’t come to fruition anytime soon. I’d encourage everyone to spend a few of the remaining summer days that are too hot for the beach or the baseball diamond inside one of these cool cathedrals of books. They make for a very pleasant spot to while away the humid hours, and you never know when they might be gone.

Olivia Just