I don’t remember visiting a bookstore before moving to northern New Jersey. Fond memories abound of being brought to the local library, but I can’t remember going to a bookstore, not once. It was only after leaving a place filled with more farms than fast-food franchises that I remember going to a bookstore.
The local bookstore was just a Barnes and Noble, a place that looked identical to just about every other Barnes and Noble location in the country. Yet, walking inside was an experience like no other. This wasn’t a place filled with stories and magic that I could consume but had to give back, keeping the tales within my heart. This was a place where I could pull stories off shelves willy-nilly, a place that would let me bring books home forever—parent permissing, of course. It was new. It was magic.
I remember standing there in front of that shelf—low enough for the highest shelf to be child-height—staring at all the books I’d already read and, even better, all of the books that were brand new. (I was such a voracious reader that the local librarian showed me to the burgeoning young adult section telling me, “You’ve read everything in my section” when I was barely out of fourth grade.) New books were something I was itching for. New books were something I only ever got on birthdays and Christmas.
For nearly a quarter-century this Barnes and Noble’s store was my go-to. All through my childhood, this was my only bookstore. There were return trips during college breaks when money was tight, even just to thumb through books to figure out what I would later request from the library. Visits became more frequent when I moved back to my hometown in more recent years. This bookstore was a safe haven, a quiet place that might have wanted you to buy something but didn’t give you the stink-eye when you didn’t. It was a place filled with the same now-aging booksellers it had when I’d been a child, people who could have easily opened their own location had they wanted.
And over the summer of 2022, it closed.
This wasn’t one of those understandable-yet-sad closings due to franchise density or a Covid-related slow descent. No, the building owner decided on a more profitable lease holder—another emergency health clinic, despite an oddly extreme density for the area (the building neighbors a physical therapy location and a different health clinic)—which forced the store out.
I hadn’t expected to be as upset as I was. Being so emotional over the closing of a franchise store felt weird. After all, there are indie bookstores with better stock within driving distance, and if I found I had an odd propensity for big box bookstores, there were not one but two other Barnes and Noble stores within a 20-minute drive.
So why did it feel like being sucker-punched? Why did it feel like someone had taken a snapshot of my childhood and torn it in half?
It took me a little while to pin down the reason, but I think it’s because the people had stayed the same. The same adults I’d looked up to as a kid were all there, the same ones who often let out a deep sigh and admitted before I could even open my mouth that whatever indie-press title I was looking for this time could be ordered, but they didn’t have any in stock. It was one of those few places that had remained oddly unchanged over twenty-five years. It was a piece of childhood, a bastion of safety and calm and nostalgia, that remained almost untouched, for better or for worse, after all these years.
Some good came from a bad situation, as it so often does. Local public and school libraries wound up buying many tables, chairs, displays, and shelving units very cheaply. Many readers got an unexpected boon of books they may otherwise not have been able to afford. And, above all, that specific location isn’t closing forever. They’ll open at a new location with the same staff, and even have a few active options for new a storefront.
When I walked into that middle-grade section of that Barnes and Noble on the very last day they were open, only two others were there. The children sitting at tiny tables and tugging their parents to and fro were all missing. It was just us, three adults in a store so empty that the ambient, barely heard music had already been turned off.
For a long moment, we all stared at one another, three strangers standing before near-empty shelves, completely mute. Their eyes were hollow, and after a moment, I realized that mine must have been as well. We all simply stared, not saying a word.
After all, there wasn’t anything to say. It was clear why we were all there. We were thirty- and forty-somethings, staring at the unfamiliar middle-grade and children’s books that refused to sell. But it wasn’t the books or the empty shelves or even one another that had our attention. We were watching our childhoods dance before our eyes, thinking about days that, suddenly, seemed so final and far away. Our eyes met then, each one of us trying to look into the others’ faces to deduce if they were one of the kids we used to sit next to at author events and storytimes. It was impossible to tell.
The whole interaction probably took less than a minute, but it was one of those odd times when time seems to stop completely. It was clear none of us could tell if we were one of those old once-familiar faces we’d seen at kids’ activities. And it was clear that we’d never
I wanted to round this off with some sort of insight into growing up, or something about how this particular bookstore led me to a life in books. However, I can’t find insight beyond the odd feeling that a portion of my life has been closed off forever, doomed to decaying memories that blend and churn in your head, changing ever so slightly over time. And I know it was the people I had been around, those wonderful booksellers and librarians handing me books, and the stories themselves that truly led to my current career.
Even so, it was an odd, meaningful moment. It was something that will stay with me, those eyes equally hollow and filled with the hope of recognition. They are possible friendships missed, maybe, and a last visitable chapter of childhood finally closed.
Post a comment