I had two book-related experiences today, one of which was obvious and prompted this post. The other I had almost forgotten about, but should not have. First, the one I forgot.

I went to the shopping centre today (Garden City, in Upper Mt Gravatt) with my seven-year-old son. On the way there we were discussing the various things we might do there, foremost among them was eating (he seems to be inordinately interested in food at the moment; I suspect a growth spurt). After finding somewhere to park and finding our way from the car to the shops, we resumed the where-will-we-go conversation. We decided that the main purpose of the shopping trip was to get something for Mummy for Mothers’ Day, but we did agree it was okay to do a little bit of looking at things for ourselves. I was explaining the concept of “window shopping” to him when he suddenly said “or we could go to the library.”

I managed to choke back my reflex response of “The LIBRARY?!?” and instead managed something a little more fatherly. “But Mummy has the library card, I don’t have one,” I had to say, thinking he wanted to borrow.

“That’s okay,” he said, “we can just go and look at the books and maybe read one and then we could have some lunch.”

Which is exactly what we did. My seven-year-old son took me to the library. We looked through the books, found one that he liked which he read aloud, and then left and had sushi for lunch. I was definitely proud but at the same time stunned that a visit to the library was as interesting a prospect as anything else the shopping centre had to offer — especially since the library is immediately next door to a Toys-R-Us!

So what has this to do with Borders?

I was a little disappointed, but not too surprised, when the local Borders franchise announced it had entered administration. All of the Australian Borders stores that have touched me in some way, including the Brisbane City and Mt Gravatt stores, are to be closed. The hammer is even going to fall on the Jam Factory store in South Yarra, the first Borders I ever set foot in (the novelty of visiting that store was part of what kept me entertained when I was working in Melbourne).

Shortly after we’d been to the library, had our lunch, and looked at a couple of other shops, my son and I went into the Borders — it, along with the other stores to be closed, are open while the administrators try to wring every last dollar out of them. There were people everywhere, picking over the remains of the stock. How ironic that the busiest many stores are is their last days of trade.

It was pretty depressing: many shelves were bare, even a couple of complete sections had been abandoned (and were being used as impromptu play areas by kids bored by their parents’ sudden interest in books). Because all the stock was 50% off, people seemed to be treating it as having 50% less value — books were being disdainfully rummaged through, in a similar way to how a pile of laundry gets treated when you’re looking for that one lost sock.

I looked at the remnants of the computer books area, and was quickly reminded why I haven’t bought a tech book from Borders for years. I saw an O’Reilly title, one which I wasn’t sure I had, and the price on it was almost $100. When I got home I checked and I did have it: bought via Amazon at a price, even including shipping (and an exchange rate at the time that was nowhere near as attractive as it is now), that was less than even the Borders administrators 50% discount would have yielded. Nevertheless, I did take a few books to the register — not technical books, rather some light stuff in the vein of Richard Hammond’s “As You Do”.

The final depressing twist came as we left the store. I got a partial smile from the cashier when I placed my purchases on the counter for payment, but by the time she’d handed the bag to me her look was more “enjoy your books and your discount, I’ll be jobless in a few days”.

From the safe and insular confines of a blog, it’s easy to rant about bookstores and big publishing companies that try to ignore the international market and continue pricing domestically as if the Internet doesn’t exist and it really does cost a fortune to ship books to a tiny place like Australia. It’s a different matter when that bookstore you used to love going to can’t afford to keep the lights on any more.

But then, as I was thinking of how to wrap this post, the thought occurred to me… what kind of place would be good for someone who likes looking at books but never buys them…

Sometimes when I’d go to Borders I’d get quietly mad at the people who’d sit themselves in the comfy chairs and read the books for hours and hours. What did they think Borders was… a library? It was a library — the problem was, in their kind of library you had to buy the books instead of borrowing them.

I’ve got a feeling that the initial success of Borders was driven by the same enthusiasm for libraries that my son showed me today. We all remembered this incredible place where there were thousands of books, and we could pick them up, turn their pages… and read a bit of them, then put them back. And to the eventual demise of Borders, that’s what we all did.

So to anyone thinking “now that Borders is going, I’ve got nowhere to read a good book” I say “find your local library!” And to any passing librarians I say “I hear there’s some books hitting the market cheap, might be a chance to build the collection because you never know when traffic might pick up”.

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