Eulogy for Barnes & Noble #2628: A Personal History


The bookstore I worked at in college recently closed. I hadn’t thought of the store in probably a few years, hadn’t set foot inside in considerably longer. It wasn’t even something cool and indie, with a storied history or a local celebrity of a quirky owner, but a Barnes & Noble. I read the news via the nearly emotionless ticker of Facebook, and it surprised me that it affected me at all. It was sadder than seemed reasonable, maybe; sadder than I would have expected, certainly.

My sophomore year in college, after moving out of the dorm and into a house with friends, I found myself needing money for rent, for food. My best friend, and one of many roommates (there were, like, nine of us; college!), knew a guy who worked at the Barnes & Noble down the hill from us, in University Village, and they were hiring.

Walking in to ask for an application was more than a little overwhelming. I’d only been in mall stores like Walden’s, or used bookstores, or the Borders in Tacoma, but that was really only for music. Their CDs were more expensive than anywhere else, but they somehow got more imports and rare stuff than anyone else. The Borders was the closest relation, of course, but this Barnes & Noble felt cleaner, better organized, more inviting. There was more space in between the shelves of books, or at least something about the layout of the store made it seem like there was, so you could walk and browse without feeling trapped or claustrophobic when others were nearby. Big, comfortable chairs welcomed you to sit and read and treat the store like something other than just commerce, and skylights kept the store naturally bright instead of the harshness of work-place fluorescence. And it was big. Much bigger than the Borders, though we always bee-lined from the entrance to the music section, leaving the rest of the store almost negligible and overall seeming even smaller than it was. This B&N had two stories – three (two-and-a-half?) if you counted the mezzanine, with the café and a couple of dozen tables for people to read, students to do homework. I remember hearing it was one of the biggest bookstores west of the Mississippi (top five?), or maybe just one of the biggest Barnes & Nobles, or maybe that’s some kind of lame, misremembered bookstore rumor. Walking in for the first time felt a little like the first day at a new school, like you were bound to get lost and would never be able to quite figure it all out. (I hadn’t yet been to Powell’s, only a few hours south.)

I’d recently read Fight Club and The Beach back-to-back, which, in the spirit of remembering, I credit largely for throwing me into my love of reading. I’d grown up reading Matt Christopher’s sports books and The Hardy Boys and a number of Choose Your Own Adventure series, but not with the fervor or dedication that in the years since has been reappropriated from super geeky to kind of cool. In middle and high school, I don’t remember reading all that much, aside from Beckett Baseball Card Monthly and Nintendo Power, becoming more interested in, well, baseball cards and Nintendo. And movies. These two recent reads, in fact, had both been discovered through Entertainment Weekly; one because the movie rights had been optioned by the guy that did Seven and Alien 3, the other by the guys behind Trainspotting and Shallow Grave. Which is all to say, I liked books and reading fine, but the possibility of working at a bookstore mostly just seemed better than fast food.

My friend and I both applied. I got the job.

During my first week – training or orientation or whatever it was called – everything continued to overwhelm. I had to memorize the store number, which was the code to the employee backroom, and also phone numbers, and my employee number to clock in and out, and where all the sections were. Cooking and Sports and Self-Help and History, Audio Books and Large Print and Travel, with its guidebooks and maps and foreign language guides (audio and text) to accompany and help with said travel. Keeping track of it all seemed like having to memorize a poem or lines for a play. I understood, of course, the overarching differences between Fiction and Non, and what was what, but not the language or specifics; it seems hard to believe, and embarrassing to admit, the number of times I had to remind myself: if it was not fact, it was fiction, if it was fact, it was nonfiction. (Herein lies another whole argument but, c’mon, you know what I mean.) One of those first couple of days, we were being given a tour of the store and I still vividly remember one of the fellow new hires recognizing a name on a book at the far end of the new release wall and pointing it out as someone he’d worked with at some previous job, in some different state, years before. I remember thinking that seemed cool, seeing a book on a bookshelf by someone you knew.

I learned to work a cash register, which is easy, and I’m good at and like math so was even kind of fun, but this was only my second job, and the first was at a produce warehouse, so all these tasks were new and had to be learned and seemed as foreign at first as, well, learning a foreign language, the section for which was… in the back corner, just past religion? Or was it upstairs? And then, all of a sudden, it was second nature and I won multiple “contests” by my till being correct the most days in a row. And, like by the second or third week at a new school, the store already seemed small and familiar and how could I have ever gotten lost there? I passed my time by paying attention to what people bought. I learned to scorn the bestsellers, the books bought most often by moms and other customers I presumed to be the opposite of myself; made note and set aside copies of books bought by people who looked cool or who also bought music or movies I liked. This wasn’t before the Internet, but was certainly before the Internet was used for everything (I didn’t yet own my own computer, and I checked my new university email on a DOS program in campus computer labs), and I checked daily the books-in-print and bookstore distributor programs on the cash register computers for updates on a new Palahniuk or Garland.

For the next couple of years, this job was how I paid for rent, for food, for all the cheap beer you drink almost exclusively only when in college. It saved me money on textbooks that we normally wouldn’t carry but that I ordered for myself through the distributor program and then bought with my employee discount. It supplied me with books to read for pleasure; I met my college girlfriend. Her being an English major confused me, both because, what was she going to do with such a degree but also because I was still all kinds of undecided. School was something I was doing so I could finish and be done with and then figure out what I wanted to do, while she had a senior seminar class entirely focused on the work of one contemporary author I’d never heard of, which seemed kind of cool but also not like a real thing.

At work, I bought books by Michael Chabon and Tim Sandlin and Denis Johnson, after they were recommended by customers or co-workers. I frequently took home The New Yorker, especially when I timed it right and grabbed issues from the back, after they’d had their covers stripped for credit but before the rest of the magazine was recycled. It seemed like some new, great magazine that I’d discovered, like the cool indie band that still only a couple of your friends were talking about. (Had I really not previously heard of The New Yorker? Seriously?!) One day, helping unload magazine from Ingram Periodicals boxes, I was confused and excited by McSweeney’s #4. This was a magazine? In this weird box, with each individual story included as its own booklet? And graphs and humor and a copyright page filled with even more writing “hidden” in among the normally boring copyright information like I remembered from my favorite comic book ever, The Maxx. I was hooked. My girlfriend and I went to readings by McSweeney’s authors, Neal Pollack and Amy Fusselman and Paul Collins, and I dragged friends to readings by both Palahniuk and Garland, when they came to town. A coworker lent me his DVDs of The Sopranos and made me promise to watch. (Which isn’t especially relevant to this narrative, but… The Sopranos!!)

When we graduated, we moved to Oakland, because she’d gone to summer school at UC Berkeley for a semester and loved it there, and could transfer to a B&N in the area (by this time, I’d quit at the bookstore and was trying to make and save money with a masonry job). I liked the idea of moving away and living somewhere new and different and the Bay Area sounded just as, if not more, cool and fun as anywhere else, and I often need other people to make when and where decisions for me.

In Oakland, I found the hidden corners of the local bookstores (Pendragon Books and Diesel, A Bookstore) where they kept McSweeney’s and other weird little magazines (is that what they were? Magazines?) that collected fiction. I started a website to keep myself busy in a town where I didn’t know many people. I found an online message board of writers and editors that helped pass the between-customers time at my new day job. I learned that these “magazines” were “literary journals” and I found other examples, in print and online, and my website kind of turned itself into one. My relationship started its downslide toward ending and I buried myself in my website even more. I moved back to Seattle. I started emailing, and then calling, and then flying to see, the cute girl from the message board.

I haven’t lived in Seattle in almost a decade, and probably haven’t been anywhere near the University Village in much longer. The transition from smaller and local to upscale, national stores had already started when I’d worked there, but has now completely taken over; I have no reason to shop at Crate & Barrel or Restoration Hardware when back in town visiting friends and family. I doubt anyone I knew from my time working was still there when they closed. I now live in Ann Arbor, MI, coincidentally the home of Barnes & Noble’s major competitor, Borders. At least, they were, until they went bankrupt last year. All their stores are closed now, too. I went back to school and got my MFA. The website that “kind of turned itself into” a literary journal, has now “kind of taken over my life,” growing from website to print journal to small press, and is co-edited by the “cute girl from the message board”/my wife (who, I should point out, and that I just realized, wrote her own “history of becoming a writer” narrative that, instead of writing this, I maybe could have just linked to). As a press, we’re too small for Barnes & Noble, the last, biggest chain of bookstores to bother carrying our books, and maybe there’s an irony in that and maybe there isn’t. I just returned from AWP, a conference with thousands of other presses that B&N is likewise unaware exist. I learned about the closing of the Barnes & Noble I worked in through college, of course, via the college girlfriend posting about it on her Facebook page.

It’s possible that I would have ended up here, no matter what. Maybe I didn’t need to first move to Oakland to make moving to Michigan seem less daunting. Maybe I would have devoted my life to reading and writing regardless. Maybe what I most needed to convince me to go back to school was just time away, and all those specific steps in between could have been any variety of different steps. (Or maybe I would have otherwise found an interest more lucrative, or less time-consuming, or both.)

Remembering all this feels related to nostalgia, something I’m often guilty of though try not to be, but not quite the same. Nostalgia makes me look back at working at Barnes & Noble fondly, but it’s an appreciation for everything that it lead to that makes it feel special. Or maybe that is nostalgia, and I’m arguing semantics. Appreciation, or nostalgia, or whatever it is… something makes it seem worthy of mourning the loss of a bookstore, even if I sometimes feel like I am supposed to not care about a “big box” bookstore closing. Supposed to celebrate, maybe even? But I like bookstores, big and small, corporate and not. And I’m doing this remembering during a break (read: being lazy, avoiding, etc.) from trying to revise (again) a novel, and thinking of that first week at Barnes & Noble reminds me how cool it would be for a friend to one day randomly find a book by me on a bookshelf, maybe even at a Barnes & Noble.

Aaron Burch is the author of How to Predict the Weather (Keyhole Books) and How to Take Yourself Apart, How to Make Yourself Anew (PANK), and the editor of HOBART: another literary journal. He is working on a novel. More from this author →