Illiterate: Entry #2

I confess: I have shopped at Borders. To my defense, they had an outstanding rewards program and, though I am unapologetically repulsed by the bitter taste of it, the scent of fresh roasted coffee can convince me to wander just about anywhere. But shopping there always seemed like buying your groceries at a Walmart Supercenter: sure, the prices are affordable and the inventory covers all of the necessary staples, but isn’t there something to be said for smaller, more intimate specialty shops? Boutiques with personality and empathy? Stores that aren’t identified by four-digit codes? When people consider the dollars and cents of the American Dream, I doubt they aspire to be able to buy groceries for their two-point-five children at Walmart. They want to be able to frequent the upscale, vaguely European grocer, the one with a spectacular cheese selection and shelves lined with wines from regions that no one even knew produced wine. And I have to assume the same goes for books at Borders.

In the past, I perused Bootleggers Books, little more than a block away from the Borders in Lakeview, but I rarely shopped there. Even when I lived just a few buildings west, I could never bring myself to do anything more than browse. Used books have character and history, I know, but the idea of fingering through pages where someone else had been always zapped some obsessive compulsive cluster in my brain that would send lightning bolts down my back, making my skin tingle with anxious static. I was attracted to virgin books, books that maintained their ivory purity. It was silly of me to think that I would be the first to touch every one of my books, but it would always take me out of the experience to be reminded that there was another, maybe many others, before me.

On the few occasions that I was crushed by the guilt of Big Box book buying, I shopped at Unabridged Bookstore, a quick walk north from there on Broadway. The store is cozy and organized in a way that feels cluttered yet easily navigable, like a well-stocked pantry. The staff, too, is as accommodating as it gets—sort of the anti-High Fidelity crew. One time, I needed to track down a book that couldn’t be found in stores. I stopped into Unabridged, and though they didn’t have it on hand, they offered to order it, free of charge, no deposit required. Three days later, I got the call. When I arrived, the book was waiting for me at the desk along with a nifty bookmark made of the perfect heavy sable card stock. It wasn’t a service that I couldn’t get elsewhere, or online, just as quickly, but the clerk seemed to genuine care that I leave the store a happy, satisfied customer.

I never got that sense at Borders. Now, I’m typically the kind of person that would rather search for something for an hour before I enlist the help of a store employee, but a few times I was forced to ask for their assistance. They all had that disingenuous granite smile, the kind you don when your grandmother spews racial epithets in between bites of garlic mashed potatoes at Thanksgiving. I know they didn’t mean it, and the pleasantries always felt empty and rushed. I get it, though. I worked in retail for years. I know that no one wants to “see if it’s in the back.” When patrons would ask me to do that, even when I knew for a fact that we were out of a particular item, I’d shuffle my feet to the backroom, stand there for a few quiet moments, maybe run through my mental shopping list for after work, try to remember if Seth Green was in Empire Records (he wasn’t), and then march back out onto the sales floor, solemnly shaking my head, eyes like cotton, brow softened, as if my face would tell the whole story: “We’re out of that.”

And in the weeks leading up to the closing of their Lakeview location, I found myself standing in a Borders, presented with a decision.

It was near the end of February, a few weeks after 2011’s Snowpocalypse. The city was buried under an unfathomable amount of snow, no doubt the result of global climate change and a vengeful God. Streets were cleared again, businesses were up and running, weather-related deaths were already forgotten. And as if the storm had boomeranged back, bringing with it even more ire and wrath, Borders Group, Inc. announced that it would be shutting down several Chicago stores, liquidating their stock in a hurry.

The sale percentages were impressive, and the people came rushing in. It was the middle-class’s version of looting. I had to see what all the fuss was about.

The store had a peculiar, familiar yet out-of-place smell—like an attic on the heels of spring cleaning. Dust was kicked up from books that had been sedentary for years, now moved and flipped through, placed back on the shelf, the wrong shelf, shuffled, dropped, and reorganized once more. Patrons were considering books and authors they had never heard of before. The scene reminded me of a rummage sale, like how I imagine Filene’s Basement looks after the Running of the Brides. Items were haphazardly stacked, some even discarded on the floor, and those clerks, who were trying to keep the crowd at a simmer and the walls from caving in, had devolved from aloofness to complete disinterest. And who could blame them? They were about to lose their jobs.

The customers didn’t make their slow deaths any easier, either. Mobs had formed, almost like warring factions, between the people who scanned the shelves clockwise and those browsing from the opposite direction. The weather was frigid then, so a few patrons, the ones there for the long haul, had removed their hats, scarves, gloves, and coats, bundled it all under their arms, and shoved their way through the wall of preoccupied bookworms.

The noise level was very un-bookstore, a Wall Street trading floor for literature. Books clonked against wooden shelving and tables, boots shuffled the carpeted floor, occasionally kicking an errant tome, people called to friends from across the room as if they were spunky teens showing off a truly sweet top to their girlfriends at Abercrombie. Coffee was still brewing, working overtime to keep the crowd energized, and the foamer sounded as though it would give out, blow a gasket or some such. New arrivals, not hip to the growing scarcity of quality titles, would ask a frazzled clerk to help them find a specific book. The clerk did his or her best to accommodate; I laughed, out loud even, at the sheer absurdity. Suddenly, this bookstore had become a place where shushing was futile and actually reading was the farthest thing from people’s minds.

It was early in the clearance sale, though, and a few good books were still in stock. Popping my head above the ocean of hurried shoppers, I immediately spotted Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom at the top of one of the bookcases. I politely sliced through to the far wall and hopped up to grab the phonebook-sized novel. A moment later, I overheard a frustrated woman asking a clerk if they had any more copies of Freedom. I briefly considered handing her the book in my hands, thinking that the selfless act would surely net me some instant karma points. But then I watched her. She was agitated, perhaps justifiably, but then she floated from employee to employee, asking for them to help her locate a title, incredulous when the books had been grabbed already. She felt entitled to these books—at least that’s how I perceived her to be. She thought that that store and those employees owed her something. Maybe she was a reader, maybe even an obsessive reader. But she wasn’t part of a community of readers; she wanted those books for herself, right then, on sale, handed right to her. I just can’t encourage that kind of behavior, I thought, as I tucked the weighty book deeper under my arm.

While the others were feverishly clawing for anything worth their money, I searched carefully, methodically, book by book, row by row. After what felt like half an hour—but could have easily been an hour or even two—I had a pile of books in my possession, some classics I never experienced (Burroughs’s Naked Lunch), some classics I wanted to re-experience (To Kill a Mockingbird, 50th anniversary edition), some wildcards from acclaimed authors (McEwan’s Solar), and a few novellas from my favorite authors. The sale was somewhere in the neighborhood of 40% off, so I assumed that I wouldn’t be the only one there looking to buy more than one book. The line was even longer than I anticipated, though. Long doesn’t even begin to describe the length of this line. The Nile is long; this was something much more substantial. A few stray thoughts came to mind. I wondered if I really needed these books, needed them bad enough to wait in line for probably an hour. I wondered if my time was worth the savings. I wondered if there was a place I could stash these books for a time of day when the store was less hectic. The bookcases, furniture, and fixtures had been mauled by the waves of customers. Hollow panels and sheets of particleboard were bent and cracked. Thanks to the indelicate nature of the buyers, there were plenty of places to hide the books for safekeeping.

But why? I asked. For 40% off? That’s their liquidation sale? Suddenly, I started to get angry with Borders. They had made bad business decisions, had grown too large, had been outsmarted by better-run competitors. They were defeated. And yet they still had the nerve to sell their remaining stock at only 40% off. And we were more than happy to oblige. They should be giving these things away as an apology for fucking up!

And it was here where I was presented with a dilemma: Do I stand in this endless line and help this silly bankrupt company make a few more bucks, or do I simply walk out the door?

I was actually surprised that it hadn’t happened already. The clerks were busy restocking the quickly emptying shelves and answering inane questions; the store was filled well beyond capacity with people wearing layers upon layers, carrying backpacks and gym bags; the alarm system, I supposed, had been turned off since I hadn’t heard a beep the entire time I was there; and the guard was even less engaged than the store clerks, relegated to door-opening duty. The crowd was frenzied, worked up like it was Black Friday, a mere brick-through-the-window away from a full-blown riot.

I felt that Borders Group, Inc. needed to be sent a message. Weaving my way back out of the crowd, I walked up the stairs and to the rear of the third floor where they had set up some makeshift rows for their overstock of genre books, like teen romance and science fiction, and wall calendars of various mammalian varieties. The area was secluded and no patrons had even bothered to walk back there to look. Kneeling down slightly so as not to arouse suspicion, I slung my shoulder bag over my head and onto the floor and carefully unhooked the clasps. I placed the books upright in two rows of descending height, replaced the flap, clasped it, nursed the strap over my head, and stood. I looked down to see if I was in order: my coat was still buttoned, my scarf was straight, my bag felt full but inconspicuous. I grabbed a novella from the genre fiction stacks and proceeded across the floor and down the stairs. (My sharp criminal mind thought that a man with no books in hand and a stuffed bag over his shoulder would appear guilty.) On the main level, I acted like a curious customer, inspecting the front and back of the book I had grabbed, surveying the walls for any other items of worth, and then I gently placed the book onto a nearby table, gave a slight shrug, and walked to the exit opposite the security guard.

The alarm remained silent.

I don’t know if anyone followed my example. Actually, I don’t even know if anyone knew what I had done. I wouldn’t call myself a hero of the people, per se, but I wouldn’t deny it if someone else were to call me that. I scored one for the little guy, I thought, for the independent, second-hand, dog-eared, handwritten-notes-in-the-margins, purveyors of readership history.

Or rather, that’s how I replayed the scene in my mind, all principled and noble. In reality, I simply saw that rare opportunity to stick it to The Man and I took it. All told, I made off with nine books from Borders that day. It was a hollow victory, especially considering that my theft didn’t contribute to their financial straits in any way; their greed and overzealous expansion did. (Or, more accurately: greed, overzealous expansion, and Amazon.) I pissed on the grave of a defenseless retail colossus. It certainly wasn’t my proudest moment, but not because I stole—no, I made peace with that immorality when I imagined the number of independent bookstores that they overpowered and eventually killed. Really, I’m not proud of what I did because all nine of those books still remain unopened, unread, chaste. With those books, I haven’t contributed in any way to our community of readers. I haven’t read, discussed, lent, or donated a single one of them.

I keep telling myself that I’ll get to them eventually. I will get through them. Eventually.

Joshua Covell is a New Hampshire transplant who loves the big city lights and a state that completely sidesteps the national political spotlight but pines for good seafood and a proper time zone. He is a writer, editor, and co-founder of STFU, Internet.

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2 Comments on “Illiterate: Entry #2”

  1. Margaret
    January 25 2012 at 12:13 pm #

    *swoon* my hero

  2. Melissa Heinemann
    January 25 2012 at 5:49 pm #

    Even better than you first entry. I got several looks of concern that I might be insane while laughing out loud of the train, particularly regarding your thought process when “looking in the back.”

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