Tuesday, December 21, 2010


The Borders in my town has been in the process of closing for a few weeks now. I first heard about it when I came back to California for Thanksgiving break; at that point, the store had a 30% off sale on everything in store and up to 50% or so on bargain materials. When I went back today to pick up some holiday gifts, the sale had turned into a 40% off on everything to 60% for bargain stuff. They're replacing it with a new medical building.

I'm a big fan of print culture. I really love bookstores and libraries. They've always felt like a source of comfort for me. I can't really imagine using an e-reader because I'm so attached to the tactile sensation of pages, especially worn pages, beneath my fingers. I get finicky about the contrast, size, and typeface of the print on pages. I like certain publishers more than others because of that. Et cetera.

Which is why it was so weird to go into this bookstore in its death throes. People swarmed. Shelves were empty. The area around the Children's section, which included the Biography section and the Philosophy section, was corded off with police tape. All of the sorting was haphazard; the sections weren't well labeled and the staff clearly hadn't bothered to alphabetize everything when they moved it. There were signs taped onto some of the columns in the store, printed on brightly-colored paper, with things like "A mind is a terrible thing to waste!!" on them throughout. Most of the shelves themselves had yellow index-cards at the top indicating that they had been sold to one person or another; others had signs with prices on them, several of which had been Sharpied-out once or twice and reduced. Sections once-familiar were jammed with books that I remembered from other parts of the store.

The experience was profoundly unsettling. I felt like a vulture at times, picking off the scraps of the place at its end, exploiting the sale prices and joining the mass in hastening the store's demise. There was a profound sense in me that something there had been lost, that an order with which I was familiar had been discarded in the end times, that things I remembered and memories that I had did not apply to the building in which I was standing. Something was off. I wasn't sure what. But, the emptiness was palpable; cold and staid.

It's probably cliché by now to bemoan the death of the local bookstore. Other people have done it with prettier prose. And I'm conflicted about how much that outweighs the ability of people to have greater access to cheaper books now than before. But there will for me always be a sadness in watching bookstores, even corporate ones, die one by one. There's something about physical places that gives them a soul of their own. Memories are built in them, they become like old friends. Friendships, romances, periods of life alight and dissipate. Especially for bookstores, they are places of communal thought and learning. Their presence says something profound about the values a culture and society holds and the things we as people love, with all of our hearts and souls.

What do we lose, irreparably and forever, when a place dies?

I picked something up for me on the way to the cash register. The store's last copy of Paradise Lost.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Riding the Crest

From Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Chapter 8:

Strange memories on this nervous night in Las Vegas. Five years later? Six? It seems like a lifetime, or at least a Main Era — the kind of peak that never comes again. San Francisco in the middle sixties was a very special time and place to be a part of. Maybe it meant something. Maybe not, in the long run . . . but no explanation, no mix of words or music or memories can touch that sense of knowing that you were there and alive in that corner of time and the world. Whatever it meant. . . .
History is hard to know, because of all the hired bullshit, but even without being sure of “history” it seems entirely reasonable to think that every now and then the energy of a whole generation comes to a head in a long fine flash, for reasons that nobody really understands at the time — and which never explain, in retrospect, what actually happened.
My central memory of that time seems to hang on one or five or maybe forty nights — or very early mornings — when I left the Fillmore half-crazy and, instead of going home, aimed the big 650 Lightning across the Bay Bridge at a hundred miles an hour wearing L. L. Bean shorts and a Butte sheepherder's jacket . . . booming through the Treasure Island tunnel at the lights of Oakland and Berkeley and Richmond, not quite sure which turn-off to take when I got to the other end (always stalling at the toll-gate, too twisted to find neutral while I fumbled for change) . . . but being absolutely certain that no matter which way I went I would come to a place where people were just as high and wild as I was: No doubt at all about that. . . .
There was madness in any direction, at any hour. If not across the Bay, then up the Golden Gate or down 101 to Los Altos or La Honda. . . . You could strike sparks anywhere. There was a fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning. . . .
And that, I think, was the handle—that sense of inevitable victory over the forces of Old and Evil. Not in any mean or military sense; we didn’t need that. Our energy would simply prevail. There was no point in fighting — on our side or theirs. We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave. . . .
So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark — that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.