I don’t remember visiting a bookstore before moving to northern New Jersey. Fond memories abound of my parents bringing me to the local library, but I can’t remember going to a bookstore, not once. It was only after moving north and out of a place filled with more farms than fast-food franchises that I remember going to a bookstore.
It was just a Barnes and Noble, a place that looked identical to just about every other Barnes and Noble location in the country. Yet, it was like magic walking inside. This wasn’t a place filled with stories and magic that I could consume but had to give back, keeping the stories metaphorically within my heart. This was a place where I could pull stories off the shelves willy-nilly, a place that would let me bring them 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.
For nearly a quarter-century that Barnes and Noble’s store was my go-to. All through my childhood. Return trips during college break when money was tight, even just to thumb through books to figure out what I would request from the library. And, more frequently, when I moved back to my hometown more recently. It was a safe haven, a quiet place that might have wanted you to buy something but didn’t give you the stink-eye if you didn’t. It was a place filled with the same now-aging booksellers it did when I was a child, people who could have easily opened their own location if that had been something 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 decent. 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 didn’t expect 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 a big box store, there were not one but two other Barnes and Noble stores nearby. 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 stayed the same. The same adults I looked up to as a kid, the same ones who let out a deep sigh and admitted before I opened my mouth that whatever indie-press title I was looking for they could order but didn’t have in stock, were all still there. It was one of those few places that was so 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.
There was good that came from a bad situation, of course. 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 Nobles on the very last day they were open, there were two others there. The children sitting at tiny tables and tugging their parents too and fro were all missing. It was just us, three adults standing amid a sea of mostly empty shelves.
For a long minute, 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 too. We just stared, not saying a word.
There wasn’t anything to say, after all. It was clear why we were all there. We were all thirty- or forty-somethings, staring at the unfamiliar middle-grade and children’s books that refused to sell. But we weren’t staring at the books or the empty shelves or even one another. We were staring at our childhood, thinking about days that, suddenly, seemed so final and far away, trying to look into one another’s faces and tell 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.
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. But 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. And I know it was the people I was around and the stories themselves that truly led to my current career.
Even so, it was an odd moment, a meaningful moment. It was something that will going to stay with me, those hollow eyes and hope of recognition. They are possible friendships missed, maybe. And it’s one of the last visitable chapters of childhood finally closed.