Fate tied into a bookstore

Time feels fluid in the fall.

Blink and I’m 16, watching open-mouthed as the second tower falls from my silent high school physics class. Again and I’m in my final year at college, sliding hardcovers into long rows at Borders not long before it shuttered. Now and I’m 29, calling into the basement in search of my husband — husband — before making a third cup of coffee.

I get lost in the past sometimes. Perhaps we all do? As Spencer and I worked to install the bookcases in the new space at home, I couldn’t stop thinking about where those shelves had come from — and remembering my bookseller days. For as much as I love my newspaper job (and I do), sometimes I fantasize about going back to shilling novels to the masses.

Silly, I know — but I was happy there. Really, really happy. Part of it was just that time of my life: graduating from college, having the first of my “own” money, making new friends. Being surrounded by words and roasting coffee and folks eager for the latest paperback, the newest hardcover.

That was, of course, nearly a decade ago . . . and the world has changed around us. It would never be the same now. That Borders closed and reopened later as a Books-a-Million, and the bones may be the same — eerily similar, actually — but the soul is not.

It shouldn’t feel different, but it does.


I find it hard to go in there, actually . . . though why remains a mystery. I have more books than I could possibly read already — but that hasn’t stopped me before. Part of me feels slightly haunted as I walk the aisles I once knew so well, I guess, looking for familiar faces that have long moved on and away.

For as much as I lobbied for a hometown bookstore, I rarely go in. I talk about it and think about it and plan to, but then I just . . . don’t.

Maybe because I need new memories. In random moments when we’re driving around town, chatting and daydreaming, Spencer and I talk about if we ever would have met without online dating. Though we lived just 20 minutes apart, we moved in such different circles that they rarely would have intersected.

But oddly, we do have mutual friends.

If you had gone to this party . . .
If I’d left work early to . . .
If you’d come into the bookstore . . .

The bookstore is where our lives could have crossed — if only for a moment. Down from New York for an internship the same summer I worked at Borders, Spencer might have found himself in Waldorf looking for a guide or record and seen me there, flush from searching for a Hemingway, Welty or Rowling.

I squint and crane and remember, trying to picture the faces of countless customers I saw each week in the evenings with mass markets in their arms. In the years I asked for Borders Rewards cards and took special orders, gift-wrapped and greeted, I can’t bring up his face among them.

But it might have been there.

Thinking of those happenstance moments — the serendipity — is fun. “Fate” feels like a big word, but it’s easy to believe in sometimes.

Though I once lamented my husband and I don’t have a “meet-cute,” I’ve come to realize that isn’t true at all. There were so many factors that led to us eventually sharing coffee on a windy afternoon, each path a different thread in the tapestry now knitting us together.

When I was brokenhearted and uncertain at Borders, looking for direction and wondering how it would all play out, he could have been there in the maps or movies — a man I didn’t yet know that I would come to know best.

Though cheesy, maybe, the bookcases standing sentinel in our new home are comforting. A reminder of happy days, of a part of my past, the job that really solidified my love for reading and eventually helped me launch this space. And my column. And the rest of my life.

My home library is “real” now! Really real. We’re building it slowly, finding pieces here and there, and I don’t plan to call it finished . . . well, ever, probably.

There’s always another book. Another world.

A changed, once-sacred space

{Working at Borders, 2006}

My local bookstore just reopened. After losing our Borders last summer, we were without a local hang-out until Books-A-Million took over the former space. We rejoiced! I vowed to actually put my money where my typing is and shop there. (Despite the fact that I buy basically everything online, I’ve tried hard to purchase books only in “real” stores. Corporate or no.)

And then something weird happened.

Despite working for a newspaper, I can be surprisingly slow to learn local news — but the store closed again. Temporarily, I heard. It was something with the roof? A leak? I don’t know. Anyway, it closed for weeks. Seeing the chaos through the plate-glass windows and the dark exterior sign was pretty depressing, honestly. It was PTSD — Borders-style.

But the light shone again. We popped in Tuesday for the first time since BAM! re-opened. I bought Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl because you crazies have been talking about it everywhere, and I can’t stand being out of the In Club. Also, I read 14 pages in what felt like one breath, so.

While waiting for my mother and boyfriend to finish making their rounds of all the usual genres, I found myself . . . lingering. By the displays. Having worked at Borders for years in college, I’m drawn to the familiar fixtures. When BAM! purchased Borders’ old space, the shelves and signage seemed to come with it. Though Spence bought many of Borders’ bookcases for his place, I guess they replaced them? Because the store looks exactly the same.

Entering is always a time-warp. One minute I’m Megan, intrepid 27-year-old columnist, and the next I’m Megan, 21-year-old English major shamelessly draining her bank account on paperbacks with her employee discount. I used to love coming to work — seriously. As much as anyone can love working retail and dealing with the general public, I adored that place. I made so many friends there — people I still think about, people I still miss. The regular customers morphed from strangers to acquaintances, and then to chatty pals. I knew their spouses, their children. Their favorite authors. The way they liked their coffee. By the time I left in 2008, I knew most of their names — and they knew mine.

There was a warmth, a camaraderie. A sense that you were somewhere people met and mingled. Where ideas happened.

It was a really happy place. And time.

Part of my attachment to that job is undoubtedly due to it coinciding with a particular era of my life. I will never again be a freshly-christened college graduate. I will never be 21, or 22, or 23. It will never again be 2006, John Mayer’s just-released “Continuum” on repeat through our faulty speaker system. I will never again feel that untarnished, undecided — and free.

Most days, that’s okay. Good, even. But other times, it stings. Like peroxide. Like salt. Sometimes I want to cry, thinking about that former life — a time when that bookstore was just about my world.

On Tuesday night, the store was deserted. Booksellers milled about with piles of bargain books in their arms, rearranging displays and looking vacantly at their watches. The café was empty save one family in a corner, most of them thumbing away at iPhones. Spencer and I grabbed seats at a rickety table and read for a bit, but it was strange to be in a silent place that was once so teeming with life — one that now sits quiet, neglected. When I worked at Borders, we couldn’t get people out of the café. During holiday hours? We’d have fools camped out until midnight, nursing a single stale cup of coffee from hours before, walled in by stacks of unclaimed books.

Is this how it feels to desperately love something everyone else has abandoned?

The bookseller in me couldn’t help but neaten the displays, aligning edges and straightening stacks. Grabbing books that were tossed aside, patiently walking them back to their proper sections. Spencer once asked me why I do that — “You’re not getting a paycheck anymore” — but I just smiled, shrugged.

“I like it,” I said, and it was true.

Earning a paycheck hadn’t felt like earning a paycheck. It didn’t feel like work.

And I really miss it. More than I ever thought I could.

Just in time for Black Friday: a new bookstore

After lamenting the closing of Borders, our beloved bookstore and the only new book retailer in the tri-county area, rumors began circulating that several chain locations were being purchased by Books-A-Million. While Borders was undergoing bankruptcy proceedings this past summer, BAM made a bid for 30 locations — but were rejected. As our local store liquidated and closed its doors, we drove somberly past the shell of what was once our favorite hang-out. Our bookstore was gone.

But exciting news reached us in October: BAM had, in fact, purchased Borders’ old spot in town. They would be opening again with new inventory. Even without the shelves once holding countless paperbacks and hardcovers, we would have a literary depository again.

And they were right. Over the last month we’ve seen trucks arriving and crews unloading palettes of boxes — a daunting task I remember from my own bookseller days. Friends, family and coworkers all chatted excitedly about how we really were getting a new store, and speculation ran rampant over whether or not they would open in time for the holidays.

The folks at BAM obviously aren’t fools. Not opening before Black Friday and the onslaught of the Christmas shopping season would be a huge financial risk, so it was with great excitement — great excitement — that Spencer and I wandered in last week.

It was a soft opening, I guess; BAM flung open its doors without any fanfare. A small banner on the exterior announced the place was “Now Open,” and that — plus the dozens of cars in the parking lot — was the only thing alerting us to its opening. It was actually really strange walking in again . . . little remodeling was done, leaving the former Borders location mostly intact. The paint and carpet are the same. Even the book genres are located in mostly the same spots, including the children’s and fiction sections — and that was cool, but definitely weird.

After all my sadness and disappointment over losing Borders, it was like my store had been resurrected from the dead. And trust me — I’m totally not complaining. Walking in felt like coming home. But it was a little strange, too, to be in a Borders that wasn’t a Borders.

It’s going to take me a really long time to call it “Books-A-Million,” which is sort of a mouthful. Though I feel silly calling it BAM!

While I’m sorting out my feelings about all that, though, I’ll be off shopping. And just in time for Black Friday.

So long, my friend. So long.

I’m not good with goodbyes. When I finally quit my job at Borders years ago, it was without fanfare — mostly because I knew that I would sob like a child if someone extended kind words or rumpled me into a hug.

Our Borders — the sole bookstore in our town of more than 50,000 people, of the entire Southern Maryland area — opened in the ’90s to great excitement. My dad, a sportswriter, had the very first book signing in our Waldorf, Md., location. I have distinct memories of going there as a kid with my parents, paging through the store’s vast selection of CDs for the section labeled “HANSON” and chatting with others wandering the aisles.

I love the smell of books, wood and coffee. I love the chatter that erupts from the cafe at strange intervals, or the way groups of people mingle in the same space while exploring vastly different books. The magazine readers mix with the chai tea drinkers; the photography-book-lovers chat with the YA fans. We’re all here in the same place — a complicated tangle of community.

And Borders is our community bookstore. There are no independent bookstores here — and the only other book vendors? Target, Wal-Mart, Costco. We have a few secondhand bookstores in the area, but most are at least 40 minutes away and without new titles. The next-closest “new books” bookstore is Barnes & Noble in Annapolis, and I’ve always been a loyal Borders fan.

But our Borders is closing. All Borders stores are closing. Save a deal with Books-A-Million that would continue to operate 30 stores, including ours, Southern Maryland will have no bookstore.

I’m devastated.

I’ve already written extensively about my Borders memories, both as a customer and an employee. I made countless friends there, clocked countless hours there, bought countless books there. Knowing that our store will soon close opens a bottomless pit in my stomach, which has been sick since the news broke earlier this week. On my birthday.

I knew Borders was on borrowed time — for many, many reasons — but the cold, hard reality of the liquidation process is awful. I can’t imagine walking into that store with “Everything must go!” signage hanging from the balustrades where we once dangled streamers for Halloween events or the “Harry Potter” midnight release parties. I don’t want to see people picking clean the carcasses of the bookshelves, benches and tables where I whiled away so many hours. And later, when it’s all over, I don’t want to drive by the empty storefront.

I’m sending others out to do reconnaissance and maybe say a fond farewell for me to the store that once felt like home. But you won’t find me going through bins or stocking up on back titles or rummaging through shelving. I want to think of Borders the way it was. I want to think of my Borders the way it used to be.

I can’t say goodbye.

My Borders isn’t closing, but I still feel sad

The summer before my senior year of college, I left my internship at a D.C. newspaper and looked for part-time work in my hometown. The natural choice was Borders, a place where I could get paid (paid!) to talk about books all day. The salary was decent; the staff seemed friendly. The lovely aroma of fresh coffee immediately permeated my pores and gave me the extra jolt I was seeking. Both a refuge and solid employment, my gig at Borders seemed like the perfect opportunity.

And it was. The only reason Borders wasn’t my first job ever was due to the 18-and-over employment policy. When I applied for jobs fresh out of high school, I was a 17-year-old kid who wanted spending cash. Getting to work at Borders came three years later and, excited beyond words, I started my part-time shifts with the idea that I would work there until I graduated from college and had to seek out full-time, career-related employment.

Well, I got a full-time job. In 2007, I was hired as an assistant editor at the newspaper where I still work and write. But when the time came to break ties with Borders, offering myself fully to the paper that was my “big girl job,” I just couldn’t do it. The idea of leaving the bookstore was unfathomable.

Most of the time, I loved the people. Even when they were rude and terrible and ignorant. Even when they sought a book with no description other than “it’s blue” or “it’s written by a famous person.” The jolt I received when I actually could find that book — that crazy, elusive, damn-near-impossible book — was a high unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. I loved giving recommendations and receiving them from others, watching with understanding as customers’ eyes lit up when describing a favorite read. It felt like magic.

If I thought I knew lots about reading before, working at Borders opened up a whole new world for me. Authors previously undiscovered now littered my shelves, their tomes procured with the awesome employee discount. On the nights I would go straight from my 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. full-time gig at the paper to the store, staying until 11 p.m. or later, I discovered the lovely aroma of coffee and chai tea. I made great friends at Borders, all of us united through our “in the trenches” mentality.

More than anything, I just looked forward to being there. The smell of fresh books, stripped open from heavy palates, was intoxicating. I loved store events like our midnight release party for Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, when I hosted a party for more than 1,000 people and worked until 4 a.m. I loved chatting with other readers and feeding off our mutual love of literature. I met a boyfriend there. Ran into countless friends there.

In our town, which has no other bookstore, Borders is the epicenter of life.

I didn’t want to leave. When I visit the store now and see many familiar faces — you know, minus the whole “you don’t have a bun in the oven, do you?” debacle — I feel a jolt of sadness and whimsy for life back at the bookstore. After receiving a great promotion at the paper, I finally quit my part-time job there in October 2008. I visit often and still feel like, if called upon, I could hop behind the information desk or man a register without trouble. It’s just the sort of job that sticks with you.

On Feb. 16, Borders filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection and announced they would be closing 200 stores (click for full list of store closings). When my dad emailed me that spreadsheet, my stomach dipped down to my shoes. The idea of Borders — our Borders, the site of countless dates and late nights and chats and coffee runs — closing was hideous. It actually made me feel sick.

I’m happy to say, friends, that our Borders in Southern Maryland is safe.

But so many others aren’t.

I understand why this happened. Countless articles have come out about why the chain, once so prominent, is teetering on the edge of extinction. The recession; the rise of e-books; the abundance of cheap books online; Borders failing to keep up with market trends. All of these things make sense. They suck, yes, but they make sense.

But what I can’t understand is a town without a bookstore. If our Borders in Waldorf, Md., had closed, we would be without any book retailer in three counties. There are no independent bookshops peddling anything more than old, dusty paperbacks, and there’s only so much you can find at Target or Wal-Mart. Friends, without a Borders, we would have been book destitute.

And I would have been devastated.

Though we’re out of the red zone, I feel terrible for the cities that are losing their Borders locations — and the employees who are suddenly out of work. I feel bad, too, for the publishers and distributors and authors who are still trying to make a living in a tough business during a tough recession — and how Borders’ closings are affecting them.

I feel sad for the couples who can’t meet at Borders for coffee on a first date or the families who covet their time at the store paging through the children’s section. And who hasn’t spent a lazy Sunday wandering around the store’s bookcases, admiring recent releases and feeling the weight of a hardcover in their hands?

Is everything with the chain sunshine and roses? No, of course not. Sometimes customer service sucks, and I get that. But it doesn’t make me love Borders any less.

I’m hugging my own store a little closer these days. And if yours dodged the bankruptcy bullet, I hope you will, too.

Bookstore adventures: Talking Leaves Books in Buffalo, N.Y.

Wherever I go and whatever I do, I can’t resist the siren call of a new-to-me bookstore. And if that bookstore happens to be a hip, unexpected treasure — like Talking Leaves Books in Buffalo — who am I to resist a visit?

As others collect snowglobes, postcards or T-shirts from vacations, I collect books. Even if the novel isn’t something I particularly love after finishing, I keep it as a memento of my journey. At New York City’s Strand Bookstore, I picked up a copy of the Paul Harding’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Tinkers. In the months since I’ve been home from my city adventures, I haven’t even opened it — but it makes me happy see it and remember standing at a table of new paperbacks, gingerly running my fingers over the covers. New friends I could discover; new worlds I could enter.

But full disclosure, I ultimately chose Tinkers because it wouldn’t add much weight to my already-heaving handbag. (Hey, I don’t tell lies at write meg!)

Several months ago, I was scrolling through Shelf Awareness — a daily e-mail newsletter with news and interesting stories on books and the publishing industry — when I saw a small item on Talking Leaves. Knowing I’d be visiting Spencer’s family there sometime in the near future, I made a mental note to check it out.

As Buffalo’s oldest independent bookstore, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from Talking Leaves. When Spencer’s mom Alex was planning our visit, I mentioned that I’d like to visit — but it wasn’t crucial that we go. Sweet and accomodating, Alex made sure we could pop over — only we got there too early. Fresh from a 45-minute flight out of Baltimore, we headed right to Main Street only to learn the store opens at 10 a.m. No matter; we just crossed the street and stepped into Lake Effect Diner, where we all ordered milkshakes. Chocolate and banana for me? Not a bad call.

Once arriving at Talking Leaves, I was immediately in book hog heaven. The store boasts a great mixture of contemporary and literary fiction while also providing the “classics,” which was nice. Warm, cozy and with wonderful natural light from windows at the entrance — including a beautiful stained-glass one — I immediately felt at home.

No independent bookstores exist within a 25-mile radius of my home in Southern Maryland. If there are some? I’ve never heard of them, and it’s rare that I can make it to any of the indie bookstores in D.C. or Virginia. What I’m saying is it’s been a while since I strolled the shelves of a place that wasn’t a corporate megastore, and it was exciting. I have no beef with Borders; I worked there, for goodness sake, and am happy to still have a local bookstore to actually visit. But there is something fun and different about a store that’s completely unique and even boasts local stock. There, books, posters and prints of Buffalo abound.

Spencer, Alex and Levi were great about leaving me to my own devices as I poured through the fiction section, scanning each title with curiosity as I searched for my next great read. My ultimate choice? A beautiful copy of Rachel Ferguson’s The Brontes Went To Woolworths, which came highly recommended by Nymeth. (Her review immediately came to mind when I spotted the book — more than a year after I read her review. Who says book bloggers can’t change the world? Or that a spectacular review can’t influence readers?)

My compadres amused themselves with a resident bookstore cat, who lounged about on a stack of boxes filled with books yet to arrive on shelves. A serious cat lover, Spencer snapped a few shots of him before he sauntered away. Probably to share a love of reading another day.

New York weekend: Strand Bookstore

When putting together a schedule for the weekend trip we were making to New York City for Book Blogger Con, my dad asked me what I most wanted to see in the Big Apple.

The last time I was in the city, I was an awkward, oily 11-year-old on only one mission: to make my crush, Matt, notice me. Seated just across the way from me, Matt spent most of his time looking out a neighboring glass window and making boy talk with the kid next to him. My mom was a chaperone and my companion for the five-hour bus ride from my home in the D.C. suburbs, but that didn’t stop me from talking loudly and being silly, all in an effort to get that blonde-haired hunk to look in my direction.

He did. Once. If I remember correctly, it involved something about me “dropping” (read: throwing) a pen under his bus seat, a pen I then asked him to retrieve for me. Or something like that.

Oh, who am I kidding? I still have that pen, though it’s now under glass and in a well-lit corner of my room. A sign hangs above it, reading, “Matt touched this.” I keep it polished to, you know, remember that singular moment.

OK . . . not really. But I was so excited at the time, I might as well have created a shrine to the Pen Matt Touched so I could keep it pure and unsullied . . . forever. That was one of those perfect, crystallized moments in my adolescent life when it seemed like things were happening — like life was really, really exciting.

Looking back, it was probably just hormones.

Yes, friends, I was all kinds of not focused on anything in New York City almost fifteen years ago. And this time? Well, times have changed.

Mostly because Matt, a guy I haven’t seen in more than a decade, was nowhere nearby. And I was sending constant texts to Spencer, making our conversations my own little Twitter-like feed of everything I did for three days. (He’s a sweetheart for not telling me to shut up. One of the things I like about him: he lets me ramble.)

So when Dad asked me what it was I hoped to see and accomplish in NYC, I gave him the ready answer I’d been contemplating for months: we had to get to Strand Bookstore.

It’s huge, friends, and boasts 18 miles of books — a figure I totally believe. Split between two three levels, books in every genre imaginable cover the impressive square footage. We went Saturday morning, the day after BBC, and must have joined half of New York in our quest to find a good paperback.

While I don’t exactly need any more books — I need to take an updated photo of my bookcase, which is embarrassing and actually collapsing in places — I couldn’t exactly leave Strand empty-handed. That’s ludicrous, am I right? I mean, I’m in New York City. For a book conference. Because I write about books. And read them all the time. I can’t just walk out of a giant bookstore without a book.

So I got Tinkers, a tiny slip of a novel by Paul Harding. I’d be a dirty liar if I didn’t admit that I bought it was because it was small. And light. And my shoulder was still aching from carrying around the awesome BBC swag bags the day before, and I had a very long day of walking around New York ahead of me, and I just couldn’t — could not — invest in a hardcover I would then spend the next two days lugging around.

And, you know, it won a little something call the Pulitzer Prize. Whatever that is. So let’s just hope it’s awesome.

Oh, and I bought a little notebook with “Strand” logos all over it. Because it was cute and $6 and also very light.

Apparently, I’m just into not carrying around heavy stuff anymore.

What else did I do at the Strand, friends? Well, wandered about with my sister and took silly photos, of course! And I even got her in on the action. The staff told us to “make ourselves at home” and feel free to use the ladders scattered around the place to grab anything we liked. The place was too packed with people of all ages, backgrounds, and interesting clothing preferences for me to look like a total weirdo, and if there’s one place we’re all welcome? It’s a bookstore.

So I acted like a weirdo.

And now I’m posting it for the world to see.

Enjoy. And the next time I’m in New York? Let’s all go there and act like weirdos. I’ll bring my camera, a shoulder ready to be burdened with great literature and, of course, a book lovin’ smile.

Edited to add: My dad, that crazy videographer, took a short clip of my sister, Mom and I browsing in the bookstore. From his perch on the stairs, he had a pretty good view! Check out the bottom of this post for that clip.