I feel like a war correspondent reportedly reporting from the front lines, but the war has already come and gone, the battle lost. What’s left now is just looting as thieves pick pocketwatches from corpses and steal high-priced TVs from shattered store windows. What’s left are bodies picked clean by crows and dogs and worms, scavengers fighting tooth-and-nail over a rib-bone here, a loop of intestine there. What’s left is an accounting of the dead. War’s over. The good guys got fucked by the bad guys. Now it’s the end of days. Or the end of books. Or, at least, the end of Borders.
* * *
I’m reminded of a scene on the news where a beached whale — dead, not dead, I don’t even know — is blanketed by squalling, complaining gulls. That’s Borders. Local store got the axe. Most of the Borders in the state are done, it seems. And now it’s a carcass on the beach besieged by those who smell a cheap pop culture meal.
I’ve never seen a bookstore that busy. You could hip-bump a hive of bees on its side and not get this kind of action. Everywhere, jostling bodies jockeying for books. The sci-fi and fantasy section is a parliament of owls: bespectacled readers hungrily looking for a genre fix. Mystery, too: a gaggle of detectives on the hunt for books about detectives. The children’s book section has, and this is no joke, no joke at all, three books left. Three nuggets of puckered meat clinging to otherwise bleached bones. One book about a wombat who is allowed, mysteriously, to play with a human infant. Children’s books can be very stupid.
The literature and fiction section is empty, though. Shelves, still full. One in a while, a lone reader wanders into the alcoves — not because it is where he wants to be but rather because he got lost, because he is the flotsam (or is it jetsam? are there any dictionaries left for purchase?) that washed up here from the churning chum-capped tides here in the bookstore. When he realizes where he is, he will shake his head as if clearing his mind of illusion and infection and then totter off again, buoyed by another belching current. Or driven by cheap prices the way a zombie is driven by his hunger for brains.
* * *
People still want books, it seems. They just don’t want to pay full price.
* * *
The prices are half-off and the shelves are half-empty and still I see books I’ve read and loved, books that I know to be popular, books by authors who I see on Twitter or even here at the blog, and for a moment I’m consumed by a dog-shelter moment. The Sarah McLachlan song cues in my mind. I see the books as sad pups and pooches: one with a scar on his brow, the other missing an eye, a third cowering in the corner equally afraid of me and desperate for my love. I want to sweep them all up in my arms and take them home and lather them with kisses and give them that thing they need most: my eyes to read them, my mind to process them, my mouth to share of their wealth. But then I remember that Borders is fucked, Borders isn’t paying out, and I don’t even know if the authors of these books will ever see what they’re owed from these sales. And I think, if I want to buy these books I should at least go home and buy them from Amazon. Of course, isn’t that what got us here in the first place? Is it? Isn’t it? I don’t even know.
* * *
Borders, of course, can’t pay publishers. It’s broke. Still wearing days-old diapers and a hat made of newspaper. And yet its hobo bindle must be heavy with secret hobo gold because Borders still intends to pay $8.3 million in executive bonuses. I’m sure I’m just naive in that I don’t understand economic realities, but it seems to me that someone should pay the writers via publishers first. Any executive looking for a hand-out should get one: and by “hand-out,” I mean “fist to the nuts.”
* * *
By the comic book shelf, a big pear-shaped dude is blocking the aisle while picking up one graphic novel after the next and reading them. Front to cover, from what I can tell. American Vampire. X-Men. Manga. Flip, flip, flip. Read, read, read. Eventually I see him gravitating toward the exit, no books in hand. Part of me wants to grab a magazine rack (on sale for $100 bucks, the whole fixture) and break it over his head. Or hurl a copy of a D&D book at his dumpy Baby Huey body as if it were the crazy shuriken from Krull. The other part of me thinks, eh, fuck it. Isn’t this what Borders always wanted? For us to hang out? Sit down? Read books and magazines? Sip a latte? Why spend money on books? Don’t we just want everything cheap and free now? Twelve dollar cappucino, hold the wordsmithy.
Words on a page like ants on snow. Poetic. And meaningless.
* * *
They’re selling everything. All the shelves. The racks. The end caps.
They’re even selling manila folders.
Two for a dollar.
Two used manila folders for one whole dollar.
One of the workers there, she’s snarkily telling a customer, “Would you pay that?”
He shakes his head. “No.”
She gives him a look like, Duh.
* * *
I can buy 100 manila folders new at Amazon for about ten bucks.
* * *
Three kids pinball between the sci-fi and fantasy shelves. Hoodies. Skull shirts. Mop-top hair. Kids today, with their hair and their clothes. “There’s nothing good here,” the one mewls, moans, whimpers, pules. I want to grab his face and drag it across the book spines the way you would a stick along a picket fence. I want to show him, “There’s so much good here.” But then I think, well, at least he’s in a bookstore.
At least he’s still looking at books.
* * *
One aisle down, a guy in his 20s is picking up a book. Hardback. Something pretty, but I can’t tell what. He says to his friend, “I think it’s a role-playing game.” He says this with some reverence, but also a kind of confusion, like he’s someone picking up something he’d heard of but never seen: a rotary phone, a Viewmaster, an honest Republican. He walks away with the book, planning to buy it.
* * *
I used to work at Borders.
It was like belonging to a cult. And not in a good way. Not in a, “We all love each other and sing songs and eat granola under the caring eye of Mother Moon” way. But rather in a, “Drink the Flavor-Aid and if you don’t drink the goddamn Flavor-Aid I’m just going to shoot you in the head anyway.”
I quit after a couple weeks.
* * *
The mood here is wildly vacillating. It is the frenzy of fishes and sharks, eyes rolling back and jaws clamping on books never-before-read without thought or meaning, a kind of predatory bliss. But here too is the sadness of prey, and some folks are stumbling around, faces vacant as they stare at a nowhere-nothing point. They look like the shell-shocked victims after a bombing, an earthquake, a zombie apocalypse.
* * *
My pregnant wife comes up to me and she’s got tears in her eyes, and I think, is she sad about Borders? I know I’m sad about Borders. Maybe not enough to cry about it. But still, a little sad.
She instead hands me a children’s book. She says with a sniffle, “Read this.”
And I think, now I’m like that pear-shaped douche standing here reading a whole book from front to cover, but a cursory glimpse through the book tells me I’m going to be able to read it in about 30 seconds. Okay. Fine. I read it. It’s called Remembering Crystal. It’s about a bird — a duck, maybe? Who has a friend who is a turtle and the turtle is old and then the turtle dies and the duck continues to look around for the turtle even though the turtle is dead. Eventually the duck-like entity goes to sleep, sad about the turtle, and there the duck realizes that he/she/it has found the turtle after all, in the duck’s dreams, in the duck’s heart. The memory of the turtle named Crystal is how the turtle still lives. It is adorable. And also horribly sad.
The book is for pre-school to age two.
It choked me up. I’m not even a pregnant woman.
Part of me recast the book, though. I am the little duck. I’m wandering the ends of the earth looking not for a turtle but rather for a Borders bookstore. Or any bookstore. Or even a book.
And by the end, I realize the only place they still live is in my head.
* * *
We go to checkout. My wife has some books on child-rearing. I have Patton Oswalt’s book. Our checkout person looks dazed. Sad, even. She’s slow, methodical, peeling off prices with this red plastic price-peeler that looks like some kind of little lobster claw. She’s saying little to us. Part of me thinks she might cry.
Her cohort at the counter is the precise opposite. She’s young, bubbly, talking to everyone. The bookpocalypse hasn’t fazed this one. Her head is probably full of Facebook and Farmville. I envy her.
An old man stands at the counter next to us. The bubbly one attends to his check-out. He’s got a book on writing. The Art of Storytelling or something like that. She chirps, “Are you a writer?”
He laughs a dismissive laugh, and shakes his head no.
“I bet you have lots of stories to tell,” the bubbly one says. She doesn’t say, but we all hear: because you’re totally old. She confirms this by adding, “My grandfather has lots of stories to tell. He’s not a writer, but boy he can tell stories. You should be a writer.”
The old man offers another yeah, but no chuckle and shrugs in a way that suggests, “Why bother? Have you looked around? Do you know where you work? Don’t you see what’s happening? Be a writer. Sure. So my book can end up here. Unbought. In a mass grave. Squirrels nesting in its chest cavity. Maggots for eyes. My words serving as their own dirge, their own funerary incantation. I’ll get right on that, you empty-headed twit. Writer. Pfft. Pshhh. Pah!”
Then again, maybe that was all in my head, not in his.
Maybe he chuckled and shrugged the way babies do, and for the same reason. Maybe he just had gas.
* * *
The bubbly girl, finding no one behind the old man, talks to us as our own shell-shocked counter-jockey obsessively works to remove price stickers from our books.
“We’re efficient,” the girl says, proudly. “We get the job done.”
I can tell. Bureaucrat of the apocalypse. Again, the accounting of the dead.
Bubbly girl has another customer. She asks them, “Do you have your Borders Rewards card?”
Because such mighty rewards await us in the kingdom beyond.
* * *
On the way out, I say to my wife, it’s kind of sad, isn’t it? She agrees.
We get in the car and we leave, navigating the swarm of cars incoming and outgoing, book-hungry scavengers of the wordsmith’s wasteland, desperate for a taste, a taste at cut-rate game-over prices. They come only when they smell smoke. They come not for the meal but to pick the trash.
* * *
Now that my email is working, the remainder of this week will be guest bloggage by the Friends of Terribleminds. They’ll start tomorrow and will go into next week — note that regularly-scheduled Friday Flash Fiction challenges will continue, however. Keep your grapes peeled.