Say bye to Borders

Hello peeps,
I’m posting this not just because it is a good example of a personal essay that nicely weaves together personal experiences and opinions – it is as much a commentary about the market of books being gradually replaced by e-books and online publications as it is about the writer’s life, her encounters, her romance with books and her love-story – but also because the writer here is speaking for me (and some of you too, maybe).
I’m not sure how many of you actually frequent Borders @ Wheelock’s Place, but it is for me a wonderful bookshopping place where I have on so many occasions spent hours just browsing the titles on the shelves, reading the new arrivals before the public libraries even have them (otherwise they are snatched up before I get there), or just sitting there and watching others read, peeping at their titles and hiding my own 😛 They used to have a whole collection of music scores and CDs, and I loved them for their classical music collection but that was gone some two years ago, much to my disappointment. But now I know why. Hard to imagine that the books are going away too, now.
Anyway, have a read and pop by Borders before it’s gone forever.
Ms Chan

A bookstore that was one for the books

By Fiona Chan (The Sunday Times, 20 February 2011)

The very first bookstore I ever went to was not Borders. But it might as well have been.

To be honest, I barely remember what bookstores in Singapore were like before Borders opened at Wheelock Place in November 1997 and changed the book-buying experience here forever.

I was 15 at the time – in book terms, somewhere between Sweet Valley High and the coming-of-age angst of writers like Ian McEwan and Jeanette Winterson.

Unable to justify spending all my lunch money on paperbacks, I would trawl the bookshelves of public libraries after school, hoping against hope that a book I had yet to read would magically appear.

When Borders came onto the scene, my library days were over. I remember thinking that the store was not aptly named – far from creating borders, it broke the barrier between retailer and shopper by removing the shrink wrap around each book that protected the store’s profits from the grubby hands of readers.

For the first time, Singaporeans were allowed to go to a bookstore and actually flip through a book before buying it. The more enterprising – and faster – readers could settle themselves into an inviting armchair and read an entire book in one sitting, which is what I spent most of my school-day afternoons doing.

And with Borders occupying 31,000 sq ft – or 23 five-room Housing Board flats, as one Straits Times article vividly put it – the supply of books seemed inexhaustible.

It was a magical experience, made even more so by the staff at Borders. It was the only bookstore in Singapore where an inquiry for a book was more likely to be greeted with ‘Oh, I love that author too!’ than with ‘Har? P.G. Wodehouse? How to spell?’

Supposedly book lovers all, Borders employees would listen to your query, immediately know where to find what you were looking for, and zoom away to get it for you. In an industry populated by nerds, Borders made reading cool.

It also turned Singaporeans into good shoppers. Dire prophecies that Borders’ vulnerable books would be abused went largely unfulfilled, as Singaporeans proved they were sophisticated consumers worthy of a $7 million, world-class bookstore that was Borders’ first outside the United States.

But to me, Borders was much more than the store where I speed-read Roddy Doyle, discovered Kazuo Ishiguro on a staff recommendation, and turned up faithfully every year on the morning a new Harry Potter book was released.

It was also where my first serious boyfriend took me on our first serious date, after we had watched a movie at Lido. To this day, the plot of the movie remains a mystery to me, obliterated from my memory by the giddy sensation of a warm hand in mine.

What I remember, though, is heading to Borders after the movie, both of us instinctively seeking out a familiar place to get to know each other better.

We had forgotten one important fact: that no visit to Borders was complete without running into someone you knew. The moment we walked into the bookstore, I bumped into my sister and had to introduce her to my new boyfriend.

Borders, after all, was the place to be for teenagers in the early 2000s. Open scandalously late into the night, and with cafes in front, inside and behind the bookstore, it was perhaps responsible for single-handedly turning the Orchard Turn junction into the most pedestrian-heavy part of Orchard Road.

When my boyfriend and I went our separate ways for university – me to the US, him to Cambridge in Britain – Borders was where we met whenever we reunited.

We would stock up on books at the Singapore branch in summer, have coffee in the Cambridge outlet when I visited him during term time, and take refuge from the cold East Coast winters in the New York store when he came over to the US.

When we broke up after university, six years after that first date, Borders was where I sought solace – drowning my sorrows in detective stories and studiously avoiding romance novels.

It was where I took new dating prospects to, judging them based on the books they picked up; where I hung out after dinners with dates in Orchard Road, trying to put off the long journey home alone; where I whiled away the evening hours before meeting my friends to go clubbing at night.

And when my former boyfriend and I met again in June 2007, a year and a half after we broke up, Borders was where we drifted to and reluctantly parted to meet our separate dates for the night.

A month later, we were together again. And when we were planning our wedding in 2009, Borders was where we wanted to take our pre-wedding photographs.

The store’s management, however, turned us down. By then, Borders and I were no longer the friends we once were.

A newer, shinier kid on the block had opened years earlier in the form of Books Kinokuniya at Ngee Ann City. It was more of a transactional bookstore – it did not have the same homey feel of Borders – but it boasted an online book search and a selection that was often cheaper and better.

Then I bought a Kindle, driving an irretrievable nail in the coffin of my relationship with Borders.

But that did not stop me from feeling a pang each time I walked through Borders on weekends and saw it trying every trick in the book to stave off its inexorable decline. I flinched at the expanding bargain book sections and printed out the weekly discount vouchers with a heavy sense of guilt.

The night I suspected the warm lighting that had made Borders feel like a second home for so many years had been swopped for fluorescent bulbs, presumably to save costs, I almost cried.

In the last few months, my husband and I have made a concerted effort to help Borders, visiting it every weekend and finding reasons to buy as many books as we can. But it is too little, too late.

No one tells you the really important things in life. No one tells you to remember all the small firsts you have ever experienced in case one of them turns into a long-term relationship and, when it ends, you strain to remember how exactly it started.

For the life of me, I cannot remember my first visit to Borders. But I will definitely remember my last.

It will be the end of an era, the closing of a chapter on a bookstore that nestled its way into Singaporeans’ hearts by offering to be their own personal library.

It will be the end of a bookstore that was truly one for the books.


3 Responses to “Say bye to Borders”

  1. phyllisfrondescence February 21, 2011 at 7:36 pm #

    Having perused the personal essay, I dare not say I have such deep sentiments as compared to the author. (But I agree with Shan Shan.) Nonetheless, I concede that the closing down of borders is unfortunate. Many times, walking down the aisles and different section of literature works, actually help me feel better after a long week in school. Like many others, I suppose its the atmosphere doing the magic…
    I remember going to borders@wheelock after a CCA session and chancing upon Coco Chanel’s biography and another occasion when I flipped through the pages of Anne Frank’s diary.
    It isn’t just about reading textx, but rather, holding a hard-cover/paper-back book. It is the ‘traditional’ way of reading which makes the entire journey a pleasant, unique one.


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