Friday, April 06, 2007

A world without Borders

Borders has never meant all that much to me as a bookshop. In the early stages, at least, of the chain's UK operation, if your town was big enough to have a Borders it was big enough to have somewhere three times better. But if it does disappear - there's talk of a management buy-out - I'll miss it hugely.

This isn't because of the pious, we-need-retail-variety argument, although that's true. There are two main reasons.

The first is that Borders open late, which is unorthodox for British bookshops, and very useful. If you want a "third place" (ick) at 8pm that isn't a pub or a restaurant, it's going to be Borders. Get stood up at a pub - doesn't have to be a date; it can be a friend struggling with work or public transport - and you* get through several drinks, while feeling increasingly freakish. Your prize is a tincture of tipsy self-hatred and a complete set of smokelogged clothes. Get stood up at Borders and you browse the books, read all the sane bits of this month's Atlantic, maybe buy a coffee in remorse. Your prize is a head full of the not-quite-higher journalism and possibly a latte moustache. You will still smell however you normally smell. I will miss being stood up in Borders.

The second thing, already hinted at, is that Borders is the best chain newsagent in Britain by the length of Charing Cross Road. This week's Press Gazette has a double-spread of independent magazines in panic at the thought that the main outlet that cares about them might disappear. Borders stocks British magazines that our own lovely newsagents couldn't give a bugger about. There are a lot of those. I remember when I was first trying to make myself a proper smartarse, about 1996, the epic struggle it was to buy even mainstream political and literary periodicals (the New Statesman, the LRB) in Nottingham. WH Smith was no help. There was one shop with a serious range - Briddocks, which was a tiny place full of spinners bearing the names of long-defunct hi-fi magazines, and turned out not to be long for this world itself. It might have them if you arrived early enough in the week. Heaven help you if you ended up in a town you didn't know, and had to find the one newsagent behind the many identical frontages that considered it worthwhile to stock the TLS.

Borders has all that stuff as a matter of course, plus all the British stuff I didn't then know about, plus a huge range of systematic US imports - which might disappear even if the UK management can get their buy-out together. They have provoked a lot of other bookshops to take magazines a bit more seriously - I think Waterstone's had some before the Borders threat appeared, but it made them bring in more; Blackwell's and Foyles have both sprouted groaning magazine shelves - but no one else does it as well. I will miss all that. Badly.

*Yes, all right, me.


exile said...

If I'm properly remembering my "It's okay to shop at chain bookstores, as long as they're the right ones" talking points, Borders is also the benign counterbalance to Barnes & Noble. As in, no Starbucks in the coffee, no mysterious habit of opening up new mega mondo-outlet across from the only independent bookstore in town.
Also, in the Borders music section you can listen to an entire CD, whereas in B&N you can only listen to snippets of each song. The evil bastards.

Jasper Milvain said...

Borders branches here contain Starbucks, but I think you're right about the US ones: the New York ones had Dean and DeLuca in, which seemed nearly classy.