After a pleasant chat on BBC Radio Scotland, I found myself in the luxurious position of an afternoon off in the centre of London. Somewhere on Great Portland Street I paused and wondered exactly how I would fill my time, which attractions I’d visit, which exhibition to go and see. I plumped for the Photographers’ Gallery, only to find it closed on a Monday. Instead of hitting the bars and reading, which would be my default position in usual circumstances, I remembered that Borders were having a closing down sale and set off for their Oxford Street branch.
The first Borders I ever visited was in Glasgow, a huge and beautiful shop set in an old library or some such other municipal building. It was light and breezy, and had that effortless preppy chic that all the best American stores possess. It looked like the future to me, all those floors, all those books. It was the first time I'd come across Life: A User’s Manual too. I remember writing down the author’s name and reminding myself to order copies of his books for the Dillons store I worked at in Birmingham.
When I moved to London early the next year, I used to wander the shelves of their Oxford Street branch for inspiration, and more than a few times to use their bathroom. It was a good focal point, a landmark, and a place to imagine you’d find an attractive girl who’d see you browsing the novels of Bulgakov and perhaps invite you to discuss them over a glass of wine at a Soho bar. Walking through the doors yesterday, however, put paid to any romantic notions: they were playing Kings of Leon; it should have been the soundtrack to Requiem for a Dream.
The place was a gigantic upended library, a shop shook up like a snow globe. Bargain hunters with the fixed gazes of porn stars flicked through the racks of cds, picked up books and dropped them wherever they fancied Where once the books tessellated at the front of store, they were drunken and haphazardly slung; the stickers on their jackets redundant, the new books uneasy next to the ones parachuted in from other stores in the hope of getting rid.
On the first floor, it was even worse; a ghost ship of a fiction section presided over by two red-shirted Borders employees who looked with terse venom at anyone who dared come near them. Mostly they were asked one of two questions: “Why?” And “Can you tell if you’ve got a book in stock?” To the former they gave a brief précis of the whole sorry debacle, to the latter they just shrugged their shoulders and gave a rueful smile. Talk about twisting the fucking knife.
I spent a thoroughly depressing hour in the store, an hour picking books up and putting them down, an hour wondering what the hell just happened. This was supposed to be the future, wasn’t it? A shiny new one, not some dystopia where books were left on abandoned trolleys, Marie Celeste like, as though everyone just abandoned ship once the announcement to close was made.
I took my purchases and joined the queue. There were more till staff than I’d seen in recent visits. When a cashier became available, they would wave their arms to attract the next punter, something I’d last seen at the Bruce Springsteen show at Hyde Park. Not waving, but drowning.
The woman took my books and I said how sad it was. “How do you think we feel?” she replied. I said I felt for all of them, and I do. In an afternoon when I’d banged on about the role of publishers in the digital age, and about twitter and blogging and match.com and all kinds of other bullshit, I wondered if any of that mattered at all if bookshops were simply left to fester, to become laughably kitsch. In ten short years, Borders, for all its innovation, for all its coffee and range, and dvds, and three-for-twos has seen the future taken from it. And I want it back.