The image of the final rites matched my mood exactly. Watching people rush in to take advantage of the liquidation sales added to the depression I’d felt since learning last week that Borders was going out of business. I was surprised by the sense of grief that gripped me like a heavy black glove all week.
No more the hours sipping Seattle’s Best and perusing magazines while my soul mate shopped at her favorite stores. No more the comfort of the faux leather chairs gathered in a semicircle in the café. Gone the people watching and smiling at familiar faces while tapping away at my laptop. For almost forty years Borders was a best friend forever, and my best friend died too young. There is no forever on this earth. I should have remembered that.
Business is business, I suppose, and it may well be true that Borders was a victim of the new e readers and perhaps its own failure to change with the times. I imagine the same could be said of the Benedictine monks who so painstakingly copied and illustrated the Bible before the invention of the printing press. The Gutenberg Bible came, the monks went.
I know I will not be alone in missing the warmth of the Borders ambience. Its rival Barnes & Nobel lacks the coziness that was found in the café and among the stacks at Borders, whether it was in Brighton, Ann Arbor, Orchard Lake Road, or Woodward. Big stretches of my first novel Perjury were written in one of those chairs, which I always found more conducive to creativeness than any of the table scattered around the store.
For some reason the people and their comings and goings and conversations did not distract me. I found it easier to write there than alone in a room at home. Writing is a lonely business, and I suspect that being surrounded by people allowed me to have my cake and eat it too.
Barbara and I came to Howell in 1970, the year before the first Borders store opened in Ann Arbor. We escaped to Ann Arbor often over the years, and I walked among the thousands of novels, histories, biographies, political dissertations, and sports books, feeling like a honey bee in a flower garden. I loved to touch and feel the books, pass judgment on the artistry of the dust covers, and imagine them on my shelves at home. There was knowledge and wisdom between those covers, yes, but most of all I loved the artistry of the way a good writer uses and arranges and manipulates words. It is art surely the equal of the finest painting or sculpture.
I bought books. Oh, how I bought books. Many were from the bargain section, but often enough I found new tomes that I just had to own and place on my shelves. There I could admire them or pull them down to see how another writer handled certain situations. Many books were there just to reassure me that if and when a certain mood hit me, I could grab a book that fit that mood—whether it be poetry, Shakespeare, Joseph Conrad, Graham Greene, John D. McDonald, or a volume on dog training or bass fishing.
And my library grew until, alas, I had to admit that no more books could live in the house unless another was evicted. Arguing that books do not take up as much space or make as much noise as children or puppies was to no avail. One in, one out became the rule.
I do own an e reader, and I have found it useful. On a recent river cruise on the Rhine and Danube, my customary book bag wasn’t feasible, so I ordered three novels for my e reader and read all three on the boat. It worked. I got caught up in the novels and enjoyed them, but even in print they were not the kind of books that would have found permanent quarters in my home. A book may be a classic or merely one that you have fallen in love with, but if it is in digital form you cannot touch and smell and lovingly turn its pages.
I saw a movie the other day titled Simone. It’s the story of a failing movie director who creates a digital actress and puts her in a film. She is a creature of beauty, and the whole world falls in love with her, making a fortune (and problems) for the director (played by a carpet-chewing Al Pacino). In the end, however, that is all she is: a digital creation. You cannot have a love affair with a digital woman, no matter how beautiful she may be. I feel that way about digital books.
I cannot—will not—believe that traditional books will disappear. Too many people like me want a life surrounded by the palpable creative efforts of the finest minds and imaginations of the ages. It will not happen. If it were to happen, if digital unreality is all the future holds, then I will be happy to go the way of Borders, as I guess we all do anyway.
But, optimist that I am, I am confident that books will not disappear. I will adjust to their reduced presence among us. I am already making my peace with the future. I write this sitting in a chair at Barnes and Nobel. Who knows? Maybe B&N will buy those beaten-up leather chairs at Borders and put them in their café.
As I said, I’m an optimist.