After news broke that the Borders bookstore chain was closing its doors, I thought I’d better use my Borders gift certificate before it was too late.
The mood at the Borders near my office was understandably somber, with a “Going Out of Business” banner strung across the storefront and long-faced clerks stacking deeply discounted books onto sales tables.
Bookstore closings are mixed bags for book fans. There’s always the prospect of a quick bargain on a treasured title, but the pleasure comes tempered by the knowledge that an outpost of the world of letters is going dark for good. I’ve said goodbye to my share of bookstores, as any bookworm must inevitably do in the course of pursuing his passion. Combing the shelves of my local Borders the other day, I thought about how deeply the loss of bookstores has been felt within the pages of modern literature.
Perhaps the most famous elegy for a bookstore that’s posted its last sale is “84 Charing Cross Road,” which collects New York bibliophile Helene Hanff’s extended correspondence with the proprietors of Marks & Co., a charming used bookshop located at the London address of the book’s title.
In Hanff’s epistolary memoir, first published in 1970, readers follow her wryly amusing mail orders to Marks — and her oft-stated goal of visiting London and seeing Marks & Co. up close.
But the cruel winds of commerce intervene, and the bookstore closes before Hanff can make the trip. Hanff, who died in 1997, went on to make her memoriam of Marks & Co. into something of a cottage industry, using the defunct bookshop as a touchstone in subsequent writings.
In “Q’s Legacy,” a 1985 follow-up to “84 Charing Cross Road,” Hanff notes that despite the demise of Marks & Co., its legacy endures.
“If I live to be very old,” she tells readers, “all my memories of the glory days will grow vague and confused, till I won’t be certain any of it really happened. But the books will be there, on my shelves and in my head — the one enduring reality I can be certain of till the day I die.”
In “My Reading Life,” Pat Conroy’s 2010 memoir of his long-running love affair with books, Conroy writes with equal affection about The Old New York Book Shop, a now-defunct establishment run for many years in Atlanta by Gotham transplant Cliff Graubart. Conroy, with typical effusion, lionizes the long-gone store as “the secret watchman of the most profound and illustrious intellectual life I would ever experience.”
In a later passage, Conroy laments that the bookstore “is empty now, unfurnished and inconsolable . . . it is voiceless now, and sad beyond commentary.”
Good writers like Hanff and Conroy, keen to what’s transitory, have known that even something as seemingly solid as a bookstore can fade into history. But as Conroy reminds readers about the closing of a bookstore, “no farewells are necessary. The books I wanted followed me home.”