I visited the Borders store up at River Crossing last week. It was a melancholy experience.
Borders filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization in February. Since then, they've announced imminent closures of more than 200 stores around the country. Their store downtown, at the intersection of Washington and Meridian streets, was on an initial list of "underperforming" locations. The River Crossing store was added in a second round of cuts. It's expected to go dark in May.
Although the banner signs proclaiming everything on sale were designed to boost a glad-handing holiday atmosphere, there was a hush about the store when I stopped in. The shelves were still well-stocked and there were plenty of people milling about, but it felt a little like everyone was laying in supplies before a storm.
Or the end of an era.
Borders stores have been with us, in one form or another, for such a long time now that it's hard to imagine Indianapolis without them. When Borders opened its first store in Castleton in the 1980s, it was a cultural event. The city really didn't have an all-purpose bookstore and Borders, with its massive inventory, was phenomenal — a great whoop of affirmation for smart people throughout the city.
Thanks to the leadership of its local management team, headed by a literate entrepreneur named Cecelie Field, the first Borders store never felt like a chain. It was, instead, a gathering place, an oasis for people hungry for books and ideas.
It was also, it must be noted, a bookstore. There was no music. No DVDs. No coffee bar, either. What's more, though the place was commodious, it wasn't a big box. It was just big enough to feel robustly overstuffed, as if the store itself was a metaphor for the generous mind.
Our Borders was such a success that, when Indianapolis threw its first citywide book festival, Wordstruck, in 1991, Tom Borders, one of the two founding Borders brothers, came down from the home office in Ann Arbor, Mich., for an opening night dinner with Kurt Vonnegut.
Those were the days.
Books — books! — were a hot commodity. In 1992, the Borders brothers sold their business to Kmart, which proceeded to create the multimedia superstore in order to compete with Barnes and Noble, another booming book franchise from New York. Now, in addition to rows upon rows of books, you could also choose among thousands of CDs and other sources of entertainment.
Borders and Barnes and Noble became known for predatory business practices. If they found a neighborhood with a successful independent bookseller, they would build a superstore across the street or down the block.
Readers, being addicts of a sort, couldn't resist. Whatever loyalty they felt toward their independent suppliers was trumped by the chains' abundant inventories. The independent bookstore, a previously indispensable part of any cultural scene worth its salt, became an endangered species.
Meanwhile, Indianapolis went from having one Borders, to several.
It seemed the corporate honchos at Kmart never saw Amazon coming. But that's what happened. Suddenly anybody with a computer could find every book in print (and many that weren't) just a few keystrokes away.
And now, with e-readers, books themselves are becoming a thing of the past.
This, of course, is evolution, the river of commerce rolling by. Things change. But as I meandered through the tall stacks at Borders' River Crossing store, I was reminded of what a serendipitous pleasure bookstore browsing — in three dimensions, in real time — can be.
I wasn't looking for a particular book or even a subject area. I had no goal in mind. So I started in fiction, thumbing through Mark Twain and Martin Amis. Then to gardening, where I spied a book about growing plants in shady places. In another section I stumbled upon Cornelius Ryan's The Longest Day, a classic account of the Normandy invasion that taught my eighth-grade self some things about storytelling that I still carry to this day.
I found books by authors I'd never heard of before, read blurbs on back covers. And came upon this oddly disconcerting admission in a collection of essays by Michel de Montaigne: "I do not know whether I would much rather have produced a perfectly formed child by intercourse with the Muses than by intercourse with my wife."
As I wandered among the books, I wondered how anyone might ever again be tempted to pick up something they knew nothing about by an author they'd never heard of. Amazon, I know, will helpfully tell you that if you like this, you might like that. But that's like asking for directions. It substitutes intention for intuition, and can't compare to the discoveries you make yourself.
The good news in all this is that, for the moment at least, smaller, independent bookstores appear to be making a modest comeback. What they lack in inventory they make up for in community. Like great cafes, they serve as gathering places where people meet to share enthusiasms — which, with all due respect to Montaigne, have always seemed better served in the flesh.