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I’ll Leave My Heart at the Last Bookstore

This article in the Millions got me thinking about not just Borders’ closing stores all over the country, but Barnes and Noble searching for and not finding a buyer, and all the wonderful independent bookstores closing their doors for good.

Anyone who sells physical books is in trouble these days. We all know that. Yet too often I hear crowing over the Borders bankruptcy. This, of course, despite the obvious problem that Bryan Charles points out in his Millions piece: many people have no other physical place to shop for books. And even if they do, many many readers–most readers in the United States, I’d guess–only shop at Borders or Barnes and Noble even if they do have independent bookstores down the street.They may not know about the independents, or might feel uncomfortable shopping there, or might think they don’t have the books they’re looking for. (And in some cases, they might be right.)

I’m very conflicted about these chain bookstores. I love my independent bookstores, especially my beloved Politics and Prose in DC,  Powell’s in Portland, and St. Mark’s in New York City.  My book buying experience is a pleasure trip at those places; my husband and I will literally start at one end of St. Mark’s fiction section and work our way around the whole thing if we have the time. The magazine selection is amazing. Terrific readings, booksellers who care–many of you obviously have your own St. Mark’s or Politics and Prose (there is only one Powell’s, sorry) in your city or town, and you know what I’m talking about. I’m willing to pay more for my books at an independent bookstore because I’m paying for the pleasure of being in love with books and having my love respected and rewarded. That may sound silly, but it’s true.

However, I also shop at Barnes and Noble and Borders, and I’ve never given that up completely though I try to shop independent more. Often, the chain bookstore is the only bookstore wherever I find myself. And because the stores are chains, they’re oddly comforting, the same or much the same in every town, no matter how unfamiliar. I can sit in the same kind of chair and have my Starbucks latte and I am a creature of habit so this suits me when I’m far from home and lonely. I am a middle class child,  raised in sprawling cities and suburbia.  It’s like going home again, driving through subdivisions. Like crawling back into the womb of the strip mall.

Chain bookstores are often more convenient. There is a Borders next door to my office that takes me two minutes to walk to if I need to grab something quickly, a present or a new book that’s just come out. I can also visit if I’m bored during the day, look at the travel section, wish I were somewhere else. It’s a nice respite. I can’t go to Politics and Prose during lunch. It would take  too long to get there and back, and it’s not Metro accessible. When I’m visiting my parents in Madison, there’s a really great Borders on University that stocks a lot of indie lit and other good stuff. My parents like it there. My husband and I do, too. It’s somewhere we can all go, together, something to do in each other’s company.

Now both the store next to my office and the store in Madison are closing. So I will lose precious time spent in the company of books. It will be spend doing something else, I suppose. Nothing is as worthwhile as time spent with books, though.

I’ve always liked Borders better than Barnes and Noble–but I’ll always have a special place in my heart for Barnes and Noble because it was my first non-fast-food employer.  A Barnes and Noble opened in Madison and I applied; a friend and I were the youngest people hired there by far. We were seniors in high school. We only got the job because we blathered on about books (probably Ayn Rand, I remember with some embarrassment) for so long in the interview they had to cut us off and realized we were weird but passionate about books. I was assigned to the children’s section. (That was back when Barnes and Noble employed people who were relative experts in a certain category to wander around that area of the store and answer questions, give recommendations, etc.)

I worked with mostly graduate students, including several MFA students, and people earning their PhD’s in English. That was the first time in my life I’d been around so many people who were as insane about the written word as I was. It was wonderful. Despite the fact that I sometimes had to wash dishes in the cafe when somebody didn’t show up for work, despite the fact that the vacuum cleaner was from 1942 and weighed three times as much as me, despite the fact that I had to shelve books day after day in order to set up the store at first, despite the fact that since I was the shortest person there, I always had to wear the Sister Bear costume for the kids’ book events–that job was like eating ice cream for every meal.  I got paid, pretty decently, too, to talk about books! What could be cooler than that? So Barnes and Noble will always have warm fuzzy associations for me, for the most part. I can’t help it.

I can’t help loving all bookstores, even the really crappy ones, just a little bit. I guess that’s what I wrote this to mean. I just really, really love bookstores. They’re full of books–and people buying books–and people reading books–and people who just want to be around books.  I want to live in a bookstore. I want to sleep among the shelves. I think my heart will fall out of my body if and when brick and mortar bookstores disappear for good. I will leave it laying on the  floor of the very last open bookstore, and may the last paying customer squish it to soggy, bloody bits on the way out the door.

  • Amber Sparks's work has been featured or is forthcoming in various places, including New York Tyrant, Unsaid, Gargoyle, Annalemma and PANK. She is also the fiction editor at Emprise Review, and lives in Washington, DC with a husband and two beasts.

8 thoughts on “I’ll Leave My Heart at the Last Bookstore

  1. It feels so good to know that you, and, I’m sure, many others reading this, feel exactly the way I do.

    Incidentally, I visited a used book store last weekend in Los Angeles called The Last Bookstore. It’s a sadly clever name, I know, and is appropriate to the title of this post. I did the usual: scanned every single spine in fiction from A-Z, pulling out every book I wanted, resulting in the towering two-handed stomach-steadied stack. Then, through a difficult elimination process, decided which ones I could bear to put back, and bought only as many as would fit in my bag. Now, back in NJ, I miss it dearly, so I already left a part of my heart at the Last Bookstore.

    1. Michael, that’s a lovely but so sad name for a bookstore. And that’s exactly what I do at my favorite bookstores–grab the giant stack then whittle it down.

  2. Nice one Amber. Don’t forget the Strand. And if you are in Brooklyn, go to Unnameable Books. New and used. Many small press wonders in the fiction section including FIVE DOUBTS from Mary Caponegro – a very hard to find book.

    1. Oh, lord, can’t believe I forgot the Strand! I have NOT been to Unnameable Books, but clearly will have to visit next time I’m there.

      Sent from my iPhone

  3. Sometimes, I go to the Barnes and Nobles near me in downtown Brooklyn and I feel like some devil is floating above my head and gently hammering my skull. I don’t feel that way at other Barnes and Nobles as much, like the one in Binghamton. But even, there I feel it a little bit. Then again, I feel that way at lots of places. But not in my living room for the most part.

    1. I feel that way a lot of places, too. Which is why I’m such a homebody, mostly. The hammering of the skull at Barnes and Noble seems to be in direct proportion to the amount of non-book crap displayed at the front of the store versus the size of the fiction section. The winner so far (or loser) was this Barnes and Noble we went to in New Orleans. Most of the store was devoted to board games and books about New Orleans. The fiction section was so small they didn’t have a single book by Dickens. Ouch. But the Barnes and Noble in Madison is lovely. So, yeah, depends.

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