The Declarer (Floyd McWilliams' Blog)

Saturday, January 22, 2011


I moved to downtown Palo Alto in 1992. One of the area landmarks was the Varsity Theater, an arthouse theater. I saw Rocky Horror Picture Show there on Halloween (dressed as Dieter, host of Sprockets). I saw the director's cut of Blade Runner there.

Unfortunately while the Varsity was a lot of fun, it was also an unprofitable white elephant. Downtown featured three specialty cinema houses. Also the Varsity needed extensive earthquake retrofitting (this was only a few years after Loma Prieta, remember). The theater closed in 1994. (Happily the two other theaters -- Aquarius and the Stanford -- are still open.)

The building reopened in 1996 as a Borders bookstore. Borders preserved much of the exterior look -- you walk into a outdoor courtyard filled with tables and bargain books.

I was overjoyed when Borders came to downtown. This was the second Borders in the area -- before that I had to go to the Milpitas store that had opened two years earlier. The bookbuying scene in the early 90's was grim. You could go to places like Waldenbooks in the mall that were little better than what you find in airports. The next step up was a chain called Tower, which operated both book and music shops. The nearest Tower Books was at San Antonio and El Camino. It was about the size of an Apple Store and rather sterile.

For variety there were the independent booksellers. To buy magazines like Liberty or Reason I went to Printer's Inc in midtown Palo Alto. There was also Kepler's in Menlo Park, less than a mile from Palo Alto's downtown. Both stores featured excellent coffeeshops. There were also the used bookstores -- at one time Palo Alto had four or five -- which I liked because you never know what you would find. (I remember standing in Bell's, reading in Roman Polanski's autobiography his weaselly excuses for drugging and raping a 13-year-old).

Border's changed all that. It was much larger than any other bookstore and used the space to host a diverse collection of tomes -- history, fiction, mysteries, politics, even several shelves of bridge books. (Now it's several shelves of sudoku and poker.) The Palo Alto store was two stories, with high ceilings and an open area with staircase in the center. There were little stools in the aisles and comfortable leather chairs outside them. (The store, like all Borders, had a cafe, but I've never taken to it.)

Borders began to appear in other places I frequented, like Scranton PA where my family lived. Borders appeared to be part of the same trend as Starbucks and microbrews -- a better quality of life was spreading all over America.

(And to anyone who snootily disdains Borders and Starbucks -- it's nice that you can go to City Lights, and it's wonderful that Seattle has the best coffee in the world, but neither does me a whole lot of good when I'm stuck in an old coal-mining city of 70 thousand whose sole attraction is to be the headquarters of a fictional dysfunctional paper company.)

But apparently the real picture is not so rosy. Borders' best days are long behind it, and the company is in danger of bankruptcy. While Borders was establishing itself in my neighborhood, another bookselling behemoth was born: Amazon. Apparently the convenience of shopping online, and the growing number of people who read books on devices like the Kindle, is leaving Borders behind.

The Washington Post has an interesting article on Borders. There were many details I were unaware of -- for instance that Kmart bought Borders in 1992. (Borders was spun off as an independent company in 1995.)


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