Anthropologists eager to study the trappings of a dying culture should head straight to the corner of Park Avenue and 57th Street in New York City. There, in the windows of a doomed Borders bookstore, egg-yolk yellow signs shout EVERYTHING MUST GO! and 50-70% OFF!
And so every day the scavengers come to pick the little meat that's left on the bones of this store, one of 226 that will be closing nationwide in the wake of the February bankruptcy filing by America's second-largest bookstore chain.
Inside the store, clerks move in a sort of underwater daze while shoppers paw through the remaining merchandise—books that are hard to give away even at a 70 percent markdown, a sinking ship's bilge water, its bad bets, its worst-sellers, a big part of the reason why the company is bankrupt and the industry is in such disarray.
By the front door there are still whole racks of Tom Clancy's latest cinderblock, Dead or Alive, priced to move at $9.99 but not moving an inch. Back in the literature section there are a dozen copies of The Brave by Nicholas Evans, proof that, contrary to publishing industry wisdom, even the author of a megaseller like The Horse Whisperer cannot automatically make lightning strike again and again. And way down on a bottom shelf there are many, many copies of a pink-jacketed confection called Starlit by Lisa Rinna, who, when she wasn't composing immortal English prose, could be seen on Days of Our Lives, Melrose Place, and Dancing With the Stars. Having her write a novel must have seemed like a good idea to somebody once upon a time. But not today.
Nicole Jacobsen, a nursing student, decides to pass on Starlit. She has paperbacks by Tony Hillerman and Lisa Scottoline tucked under her arm. "I think it's really sad that Borders is closing," Jacobsen says. "I like being able to see and touch a book I'm going to buy. In a store you get to interact with people and hear about what's good, hear about a writer you've never heard of before. And you don't get that online. This is where society's going—people just stay in their apartment and go online to do everything. It takes away from the purpose of life, which is to interact with people."
"They want a Jodi Picoult or Nicholas Sparks book, which to me is just a prototype for Lifetime movie network."
Brittany Jackson has been working in the store since she earned a degree in English from the University of Florida in 2008. A serious fan of Southern Gothic fiction—Faulkner, Flannery O'Connor, Truman Capote—she lowers her voice to talk to a reporter, but only slightly. She seems to be telling her bosses You can't fire me, I've already been laid off.
"Places where knowledge is exchanged are disappearing, and it's awful," Jackson says. "Our culture doesn't support the local bookstore anymore. It's all about who can give me the best deal. When this sale first started in February, discounts were only 20 percent but we had so many people who bought just because stuff was on sale. It was almost like the way sharks' eyes go black when they feed."
Unfortunately, as Jackson sees it, most of the sharks were feasting on drek. "It's discouraging. I'll have someone ask me what I'm reading. If I say Krik? Krak! by Edwidge Danticat, it's a collection of modern folk tales from Haiti—they don't want to read that. They want a Jodi Picoult or Nicholas Sparks book, which to me is just a prototype for Lifetime movie network. I will say that all of our Louise Erdrich sold out, which is a good thing."
Downstairs in the non-fiction section, two clerks take turns answering the phone and telling customers that the computers are down and discounts are now between 50 and 75 percent on all stock and furnishings and, no, they don't know for sure when the store will finally close. (It will disappear by the end of April, according to Borders spokeswoman Mary Davis, who says employees will then have the chance to apply for exciting career opportunities at the surviving 407 Borders stores. "The closings have nothing to do with the quality of the store staffs," Davis adds. "It's about economic viability.")
When they aren't busy working, the two clerks discuss the day's astonishing news that McDonald's plans to hire 50,000 workers in a single day. One clerk wonders how such a thing is possible in this economy. The other, speaking with an air of authority, attributes it to the irresistible deliciousness of the McRib. Who's to argue with him? Anyone who has witnessed failure at such close range is surely qualified to have an opinion about what makes a business a success.
It's irresistible deliciousness, obviously, not fare like Starlit and The Brave and Dead or Alive.
Bill Morris is the author of the novels Motor City and All Souls' Day . His writing has appeared in Granta, the New York Times, the (London) Independent, the Washington Post Magazine, L.A. Weekly and the online literary magazine The Millions. He lives in New York City.