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.