There’s a track on Jon Brion’s unparalleled 2004 soundtrack to “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” that’s been playing in my head lately. “Bookstore” runs only 52 seconds, but its character, formed from eerie strings played in reverse, is unforgettable. In the movie, the track plays as Joel goes to meet Clementine at a bookstore where she works.
The logo is never shown, but I’ve always known it was a Borders. The warm colors, those angled shelves rising just to chin level — the setting of the bookstore chain is etched into my memory. But I’m one of the last kids who grew up with it. Fifth graders today have no memory of the place I’m about to describe. And when they, like I once did, watch “Eternal Sunshine” in late high school or early college and think they’ve found a niche and unknown brilliance in it, that scene in the bookstore will be nothing more than that: a scene in a bookstore.
It’s more to me.
The carpet in the kids section. That’s what I remember. The space-themed, cosmic blue/purple carpet with yellow stars and rocket ships, flattened in the center lines of the aisles where people walked, where they stopped to tilt their heads at the spines on the shelves. The shelves were taller then, if only because I was smaller.
There was a little platform where they’d give readings, where authors would presumably sit and leaf through their new picture book to a crowd of adoring kindergartners, though I never went to one of those. My Borders was in Grosse Pointe, Mich., just down the block on Kercheval Avenue from Starbucks and Ace Hardware. There used to be a Jacobson’s department store across the street, but it closed before I was born or soon after and I only know because my mom mentions it whenever we drive by.
I went there to look for Percy Jackson and Warriors books — the two series that held my third-grade class in a pop-literary chokehold. I have a Harry Potter box set somewhere that I know for a fact was purchased by my dad at the 2007 midnight release of “The Deathly Hallows,” the one my brother commanded him to camp out for in his stead.
Those are the things I saw myself. Here are some I didn’t.
Borders was founded here in Ann Arbor. The first store opened in 1971 at 209 S. State St. — now the site of a CVS — but the owners relocated a few years later to 303 S. State — now the site of the MDen — and in 1994 to the corner of Maynard Street and East Liberty Street — now home to Knight’s Steakhouse, Sweetwaters and Slurping Turtle.
The Liberty location would remain the flagship Borders for the next 17 years. The space used to be a Jacobson’s department store, which my mom would find funny.
But the company quickly expanded beyond Ann Arbor. They opened their second store in Birmingham, Mich., sometime in the mid-1980s, just a few minutes away from where I went to high school. When the founders sold the company to Kmart in 1992, there were 21 Borders locations across the U.S. That number rose to the hundreds as the company opened franchises, airport stores and went international.
By the mid-2000s, Borders was the ubiquitous bookstore chain. Some had cafés and sold Starbucks coffee. They sold CDs and CD players, branded mugs and toys — Bakugan and Beyblades, if I remember correctly. They had an endless assortment of bookmarks and, of course, they sold books. Real, physical books. And that might’ve been why they didn’t last.
There were over 500 Borders locations in the U.S. in 2010. A year later, there were none.
The company had been bleeding money. They hadn’t turned a profit since 2006. It occurs to me that my memories of Borders were all from this time when things were turning bad, though I never knew as much. I can think now only of the quiet among the shelves and the smell of fresh paper. But behind the scenes, the model was failing.
Amazon arrived in 1995. As he is wont to do, Jeff Bezos killed a source of happiness. Books were easier to buy online and were always in stock. You didn’t have to drive 10 minutes to the nearest Borders. Instead, you could click “purchase” and wait a few days for the package to arrive at your door. Borders contracted to sell books through Amazon in 2001, rather than pushing for its own online presence.
Barnes & Noble also applied some pressure by jumping to sell e-readers like the Nook (remember those?) years before their competitor. They’d consolidate the scraps of the brick-and-mortar bookstore chain niche once Borders was dead and buried.
And now it’s buried. It’s a collective memory that will die with my generation. And maybe I’m reading too much into that fact. But I don’t think I am. There’s an importance to the spaces we inhabit. There’s the nostalgia of returning to a place you haven’t been in too long. Then there’s the nostalgia of a place you can never return to.
I’m nostalgic not for something that went out of fashion or lost its trend, but for something that is obsolete — a culture or a way of engaging with art and the world that is no longer useful enough, attractive enough, profitable enough to exist. And that scares me. Like the many other normal and ordinary aspects of growing up, it carries more weight than you’d think or want.
The Borders in my hometown closed one day, and another store took its place. I can live with that. Places change and you watch them as they change. Here’s what I can’t quite live with: The very first Borders was here in Ann Arbor, and it is now a drug store, or a restaurant, or a gift shop for parents with an abundance of cash on game days — and I never knew. I didn’t watch this place change. It changed without me. It changed during my life but apart from it. And still, I miss that thing I never even saw.
That scene in “Eternal Sunshine” is meant to be a memory of one of the characters. As the memory fades, the books on the shelves turn white, the titles disappearing from their spines. The warm colors of the store go cold. The music plays in reverse.
I always thought they shot the scene in a Borders. I thought I recognized it, that I couldn’t mistake it. They shot it in a Barnes and Noble. They mention the name at one point. But we see things the way we want to, true or not.
On the day my hometown Borders closed, they were selling everything inside. The light fixtures, the CD racks, the iconic sign itself. I went with my mom. We bought one of the shelves for $14. When I asked my brother to help lift it out of the trunk, he asked, “Why’d you guys get this thing? There’s nowhere to put it.”
I shrugged, told him we could leave it in the basement. It stayed there for a year or two. Then my mom told me to take it outside. I knew she meant the curb, but I dragged it into the backyard. It sat in the rain and in the snow until the wood rotted through. I could not for the life of me explain why we bought it in the first place, or why I refused to throw it out. It’s something like music playing in reverse.
Books Beat Editor Julian Wray can be reached at email@example.com.