The other day, I called Roberta Rubin, owner of the Book Stall in Winnetka. My question was a little indecent: Did she miss Borders? At all? Just a little? At the end there, back in September, when the Ann Arbor, Mich.,-based chain finally imploded and those garish green signs screaming "80 Percent Off!" could be seen coast to coast? When its company-wide strip-mining meant not only Updike, Poe and Dickinson were being sold far beneath their value but also the very bookshelves being dismantled and liquidated there and then? Did she feel a pang?
"I have a bittersweet feeling toward them, I suppose," she said. "They did not have someone behind the counter who could tell you how the Steve Jobs book is. They did not show the expertise they should have. I'm glad we have 500 new customers because a Borders closed not far from my store. But I am sad, yes."
Because Borders was confusing and not always lousy. Feelings got complicated. For a long time, at least a decade, if you lived in a town where Borders was the primary bookstore, a kind of Stockholm syndrome would develop around it: It might have killed off independent booksellers, but it was the only thing you had left. When I lived in Toledo, this was the situation: An independent entered into a partnership with Borders; less than a year later, the independent closed and Borders settled in, and when some of the employees gravitated to the chain and you noticed them behind Borders' registers, they would smile sheepishly, apologetically.
That's partly because up the road, in Ann Arbor, Borders wasn't hated, and for most of its existence its flagship store, on Liberty Street, never seemed especially corporate. And those tables! Those great big tables at the front of every Borders. Even at the store that was here on Michigan Avenue, you could spend an afternoon never traveling more than 20 feet, sticking to the stacks just beyond the revolving doors, vast piles of new titles that kept you up on all things literary, fiction and nonfiction. Those tables are gone now, and even at Barnes & Noble you're greeted with a display for its Nook tablet -- whatever exists from the new-books tables has been placed off to the side, behind the Nook, like the annoying relatives at a wedding.
The irony is that Borders fed an appetite that only the few neighborhood independents left standing can satisfy, that desire to touch the printed page, examine covers, browse. It's a confusing world.
-- Christopher Borrelli