Back in March of 2013, I was on a one-week training for Whole Foods in Orland Park, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago. We’d carpooled to our hotel and since I didn’t have my own ride with me, I’d end up walking around town during bored down time. On an average stroll, I’d come across a tire vendor or two, a Chipotle, a drove of bars and a mall. The mall contained a Borders bookstore, which I made my hangout for a couple hours one what must have been my last full day in town. I sat there in the cafe of the store (Borders was somewhat like Barne’s & Noble, a full-sized book vendor very accomodating to in-store reading). There was this old-looking dude with whom I’d end up striking up a conversation about war, for some reason still not entirely clear. There was music playing on the PA, which I learned to be “I Was a Fool” by Tegan and Sara, and I’d end up asking what the music was and then buying the CD, later on in that same trip. (At this point I still didn’t own a smart phone, if you can believe it.)
And I walked out of there with a CD. But I walked out with something more, too, which I’m sure you can glean, per an examination of my blog and all my nerdy habits, so I’ll save you the cheesy speech on “culture” and “the soul” and whatnot.
But I’ve always been a grocery buyer or line cook that spent way too much on books and CD’s, you might say. I remember taking a bevy of trips to the Borders out in Boulder, Colorado, when I lived out there, and unloading money on CD’s of Beach House, Fleet Foxes, Liars, Animal Collective — I think I had Internet but for some reason I didn’t like downloading (this was 2008 or so and so there was no streaming yet), partly because PC’s are such pieces of crap, of course. One trip I remember was peppered with this checkout clerk who would repeat the phrase “So you should always ask if there’s a coupon” until you actually asked if there was a coupon or until it just got too weird that he had to stop, to avoid looking and sounding like he was having a seizure, or something along those lines.
Now, am I being spiny and dismissive to assume that you wouldn’t get something like that at a grocery store or fitness center, two entities with which my home metro area has been prolifically bombarded in recent years? And am I being sappy and nosy to wonder where that person could possibly work once Borders filed for bankruptcy? He and Borders were perfect for each other — a quiet, well-lit store full of people with ample attention spans, and a mild-mannered erudite with people skills prone to taking conventional conversation formats and bending them, given the necessary time and environment.
And I know buying books online can be pretty cool — you can usually get good prices and there’s not a chance somebody’s already thumbed through them, which is kind of nice. But there was an element of society you got with a big bookstore that’s not there anymore. We still have a Barne’s & Noble bookstore in Mishawaka, Indiana, but it’s attached to the mall and it’s just not the same — the staff are friendly and cool but it certainly doesn’t feel like anything unique or culturally valid, being adjacent to the Flat Top Grill and a store that sells sports penants. Chicago is a prime showcase of the value of bookstores, with record stores now obviously on the wane in relevancy as music streaming has taking off. There are still great bookstores in the city, like Roscoe Books in Roscoe Village, where I struck up a great conversation with this clerk about David Bowie and how all conversations about him devolve into one about fashion and not music. There’s Unabridged Books, which I believe was in boys’ town, where this girl with one-inch hair noticed me looking at her to ask her a question without me even saying anything, and where I scored a copy of S.O.S. by Amiri Baraka, my favorite all-time poet. I would have gone to the one in Hyde Park but I was wary of a beautiful blonde smiling at me, which that neighborhood has a tendency of furnishing, plus I’d already spent over $30 on books in like one hour. Anyway, if you take away the bookstores, Chicago seems to offer very little to me but strange Vietnamese restaurants and angry sports fans, so I prize the wealths and attributes of bookstores and just wanted to share an anecdote or two in their favor.