The Borders Bookstore I'll Never Forget

Bookselling Economics History New York City News

I'm very sorry to hear that all the Borders bookstores in the world may close their doors very soon. This is not, apparently, because the book business is slowing down (Barnes and Noble and Amazon are still viable) but because of specific business decisions that turned out badly. I hope there will be a last-minute salvation, and if there's not I will certainly grieve this loss. Say what you want about massive book super-stores; they are great places to buy books, hang out and hear author readings. And we need the restrooms.

There's one Borders bookstore I specially remember, my favorite Borders in New York City, though this store closed nearly ten years ago. It was one of the flagship Borders locations in Manhattan, and it was a particularly good one because the vast building that housed it gave it the space of a barn.

This Borders had three floors -- a small one, a big one, and a very big one. The lowest, smallest floor let out on a subway/PATH train concourse, and so it held mystery and romance bestsellers, comic books, magazine racks, bubble gum, CDs and playing cards. It was good that all this stuff cluttered up the lower floor, because it freed up the first floor to be something special.

The first, street-level main floor of this Borders was all fiction and literature. Nothing else; the bestsellers were downstairs and the categories were upstairs. The shelves started with Chinua Achebe on one side of the large space, wound around the setbacks and corners like wallpaper, and ended with Louis Zukofsky near the revolving doors. In the middle were flat table displays of paperbacks, new releases, staff picks, remainders. I spent a whole lot of money over several years on this floor.

Escalator up to the third floor, and you're in a space like an airplane hangar, all well-filled with books of various kinds. To your right is the sports section, then kids (with a play section in the middle), and then if you turn a sharp right for the men's room you run conveniently into the music and arts section (where I also tended to spend a lot of money). Further into the space is science, philosophy, psychology, religion, New Age in the center, history and World War II/Civil War books (the Father's Day aisle) to the right, cooking and crafts and automotive to the left. You could walk around and between the shelves of the third floor of this Borders for an hour and never see the same person twice.

The reason this Borders bookstore closed nearly ten years ago was that it was in Building 5 of the World Trade Center. Obviously, it never opened its doors again after September 11, 2001. For a while there was a new Borders in the Financial District, at 100 Broadway right around the corner of Wall Street, so I felt the memory of this great lost bookstore was honored. But the Borders at 100 Broadway closed in February.

Will the rest of these great stores close? I hope not, but it looks like they will. I wonder how many people will someday remember their favorite bookstores forever (in sad past tense) the way I still remember the Borders at 5 WTC.

28 Responses to "The Borders Bookstore I'll Never Forget"

I met some of the most important people in my life working at Borders. Had I not haphazardly (and quite begrudgingly) decided to accompany my mother and stepfather out one hot, sunday afternoon in August, 1996, to browse around (and later fill out an application for employment) my world might be very very different.......

Working there, I met my very best friends, some friends for life, the father of my child.... It was also there that I learned to manage a jazz section of music and got introduced to ideas and notions i might NEVER have discovered. I'm partly who I am today for working there.......

Cornball as it sounds, it's true!

Thank you for sharing your memories - very poignantly put. I've never shopped too much at Borders, but I probably would have if I had one as impressive as the one you describe.

by WIREMAN on

I'm with you on this Levi....massive corporation or whatever these bookstores were a big part of my 90's life.....i've performed and showed my wire sculptures in them and always had positive experiences...I've seen amazing poets (Nikki Giovanni....Quincy Troupe...and more....) perform at the now closed Borders at 18th and L Sts. in D.C. It's a bummer indeed that the end is inevitable....

by Lisa Peet on

New York was never really a Borders town, was it? The only one I have any real feeling for is the same as yours, Levi -- the one in 5 WTC. I lived in Hoboken from '96 until 2003, and when I ended up downtown at the end of the day I'd usually kill a few minutes at that Borders before getting on the PATH.

I have one very strong memory of it, which was weirdly enough just a few days before it -- closed, OK, I can live with that nomenclature. On Sunday, September 9, a friend and I were heading back to Jersey from a long, sodden brunch party in Brooklyn, and we spent about half an hour there just browsing -- I don't think either of us bought anything, just looked at books and laughed, just trying to extend what had been a fun afternoon a little bit longer. Nothing special, just a nice bookstore interlude, and it probably wouldn't have stuck with me if not for the week following.

Eventually we got on the train and headed back to Hoboken, and when I came up out of the station I looked back at the Trade Towers and said, with at least a little affection but probably not lots, "Those are a couple of ugly-ass buildings." I'll always feel a bit free-floatingly guilty about that.

I was in New York last May and walked into the Madison Square Garden's Borders just to see what's up. It was rather disappointing compared to The Strand or to its Canadian pendant Chapters. It was very small and disorganized. That was after they filed for bankruptcy so I don't know how it affected them, but it made me appreciate my Canadian bookstores a little more.

by Nick Mamatas on

I also liked the WTC Borders quite a bit. I suppose my real favorite Borders was the one on Lake Grove, Long Island. When it opened, it was a lifeline to real culture and entertainment that just didn't exist in the strip malls and fairly tiny libraries in the surrounding towns.

by Jason Strohmaier on

The late, great Borders in Rockville, MD, a multi-level beast not unlike the one you describe above, is the first bookstore that made me geek out about literature in any way. It opened around when I was in middle school/junior high. I started out as a music-inclined kid and thus gravitated more toward Rockville's Tower Records (RIP as well). But when I was eleven or twelve, and the local Borders moved from a square, standalone retail outlet to the front of Rockville's White Flint Mall, I took notice.

It was just so cool. You stepped onto the first floor escalator leading into Borders and were surrounded by books as you rose, viewable through the glass cylinder the escalators crisscrossed on the second and third floors. Magazines, reference books, etc. were found on the lower floor, with literature, children's books and music on the floor above. The store relied in part on casual browsing while shoppers waited on a dinner reservation on the first floor or the start of their movie on the third, but for me the Borders became the destination instead of a mere diversion.

I went occasionally over the years with my grandmother, a local librarian, who would point out different up-and-coming works of literature she'd heard of or read at her job. This exploration at Borders led to two memorable literary near-misses. I was still a music nerd at this point, so as cool as the whole place seemed in general, my idea of fun wasn't sitting down and reading something that wasn't required of me for school. One of the books she pointed out felt like it was five pounds in my hands, an overly complex tome that she hadn't even read but said I'd have to keep in mind once I was past my mid-teens. The other, which she actually bought me a first American edition of at that store, was a kids/young adults book about a child who discovers he's a wizard. I gave away that first edition because it just looked like a stupid kid's book to my undiscerning eye. I'd read The Lord of the Rings years before, when I was ten; this book seemed below me by that time.

The two in question probably aren't difficult for anyone reading Lit Kicks to guess -- they were "Infinite Jest" and "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone", respectively.

That Borders was one of the first to close under the bankruptcy filing earlier this year, one of the doomed "underperformers". By then the designation was probably accurate, as the aisles seemed rather empty when I visited in later years. For me it's a fond memory, now more than ever given my recently increased interest in literature of all forms.

by catalyst on

I have fond memories of Borders. When I lived in Portland, I didn't frequent borders that much because Powell's books took most of my attention. But when I moved to California I was impressed by the Borders in Walnut Creek just 15 minutes outside San Francisco. I've spent many hours in the small, but decent poetry section. I once read an the entire Langston Hughes book they had on the shelf. I ended up not purchasing it because I was broke, I went back about a week later after I got my pay check and it was gone! RIP borders

by x-Border on

I have fond memories of the WTC Border's (and that Border's *only*), too. I worked at the Border's in Burlington, VT, where the managers made it clear that they didn't trust us and that we were idiots. I don't know if this was true of all Borders stores, but I will admit to chuckling just a bit when I heard they were closing.

But the WTC Border's was wonderful. I would go there whenever I was visiting my parents on the lower east side from wherever I was living at the time, and I always tried to snag a window seat overlooking the M22 bus stop on Vesey St. Great view, excellent selection of books, perfect location for me (the M22 took me home). Thanks for the post.

by medusa_woman on

I was never a fan of Border's -- always loyal to the smaller bookstores -- but when my company moved to the World Financial Center, I just had to investigate. A book-lover cannot walk past books. Ever. It sort of took my breathe away -- the size, yes, as Levi said, like a barn. It was tall and long and deep. I spent many hours on the floor of that store -- so content -- always going back to work late.

by USGFC on

The Borders at #5 WTC was also my favorite. I worked at the WTC and WFC in the late 90's, and was in there every chance I could get. I was lucky enough to be there for some great book signings (which later became Christmas presents,) by Joe Torre, Yogi Berra, and a special one from Olympic Gold Medalist Peggy Fleming. Miss Fleming also spoke to the group attending on the third floor and answered questions afterward. The whole store always seemed to me, to give that special feeling of welcome, no matter when I would go in. I was deeply saddened by the events that culminated in its closing.

by tom on

At the WTC border's there was an events guy who would introduce authors. Does anyone know his name?

I spent my lunch breaks at the Borders. Sometime mid to late 90s. Cellphones were kind of new. People were sitting in a circle reading books. A guy had a small pre-interview on his cellphone.(trying to get a VB coding contract or something). He was a bit loud, inconsiderate etc...

Once he got off the phone, a guy sitting opposite me slowly clapped his hands and looked at me and I joined. Soon all the people around joined in. You should have seen the look on the guy's face. Priceless!!

Maybe Rushkoff, Douglas will show us a way out of the mess we are in.
http://www.amazon.com/Life-Inc-World-Became-Corporation/dp/1400066891

.... joshmatix@yahoo.com

by Shell Bush on

I worked at the WTC (store #142) from 9/1996 to 9/2001. I started as a bookseller and moved up to assistant manager and store trainer by '99. I was in charge of the entire fiction/literature department on the ground floor and had an awesome team working under me in the various subsections. I met lots of great people working there. Unlike a lot of the managers I always ate lunch in the breakroom with everyone else, so I got to really get to know everybody. Just typing this makes a bit sad remembering all those faces I haven't seen in over a decade. I still have a copy of a schedule I made on Dec. 7, 2000.

I would have missed the events of 9/11 if I had stuck to my usual routine but I had a new hire and a transfer to train that day so I went in early. I arrived 5 minutes after the first plane hit and was standing in front of the Millenium Hilton when the second hit. Obviously a day I'll never forget.

After 9/11, I was able to transfer to #51 in White Plains along with a few coworkers, including my SciFi clerk's girlfriend who had been in Special Orders at WTC. However, "Area 51" as the White Plains store was known, made a bad experience worse and I left the company. After some time as a teacher in East Harlem, I went back to school myself and started working PT at the new Wall Street store, #566. My general manager, Melissa Glowski, was in charge and had assembled a good number of folk from the WTC store, so it was a reunion of sorts, although by then the company had already begun its slide on the corporate level so the trickle-down to us was a work experience that was pretty dull. Hell, we weren't even required to maintain shelving standards anymore as long as we got merch out on the shelves.

And now it's all gone and all I have are my memories of a good, solid five years working in the greatest city in the world at the greatest location in the world. During those five years I got to shake hands with Gary Sinise, tell a joke that went over Robert Jordan's head, insult fans of Neil Gaiman, fetch some chai for Pamela Anderson, stand next to a man with a death sentence on his head (Salman Rushdie), smell alcohol on Eric Bogosian's breath, talk to Thurston Moore and Lee Renaldo of Sonic Youth about death metal and such, and meet Ray Bradbury. Not doing much of that here out in Bumfuck, GA, where I live now. It is what it is.

I've only managed to keep contact with a few people from WTC but wouldn't mind hearing from anyone else who just wants to say "Hi". I know some of you stayed with Borders a long time; hope you're making it in the real world.

by Randy Burbach on

I have deep nostalgia for that WTC Borders, as I started working there before it was open. We had a staff of great people, and I think of them often - Shell, I remember you from those days

by Michael Brady on

My dad worked in Tower 2, and every time I'd go in to visit him, we'd always exit the Towers through Borders. Having the Borders downstairs from his office was his version of having a bar in his lobby. He'd always stop for "just one" book, but would probably walk out with two of three. It was such a lively place, and I'll miss it dearly. Dad never made it out on 9/11, but if he had, I'm sure he'd miss it even more.

by Levi Asher on

Damn, Michael ... that sure hits hard.

by Shell Bush on

Hope you don't mind, but I dl'ed some of the pics to use in my 9/11 presentation I give to the students at my local high school. Other than some interior pics I took during closing one evening, I have very few pics of the Borders and only one exterior shot my mother-in-law took a few days after the event.

by Bryant on

I was a full-time student at nearby Pace University, and worked briefly as the classical music mgr (OK, not manager, but I was the one who stocked all the stuff) on the second floor. I worked there for most of 2000, I think.

While I was very part-time, I vividly remember working with so many neat, diverse, and friendly people. We would sit in the stock room and insert new CDs into cases, and I had so many great conversations. I think the music manager was a taller guy in glasses who usually wore black. Sadly, I don't remember anyone's name except a nice older guy named Hiro.

Shortly after 9/11 when I was applying for various after-school jobs, the application would always ask for the contact information of your past employers. I thought it very sad and sobering to have to write "DESTROYED" for my time at 5 WTC.

A great store with great people that is dearly missed more than 12 years later.

by Randy Burbach on

I worked at that Borders from before it opened until I started teaching. It was the most enjoyable job I have ever had. We had what makes any great bookstore great - a knowledgeable staff with a deep love of books. We knew what was likely to cause a buzz before reviews.

The following is a true story: A woman walked in looking for a particular self help book, but she couldn't remember the author or the title. She remembered that it was blue. A coworker and I asked her to wait where she was, walked to the section and grabbed the right book. I remembered the author, the coworker the title.

by Pascale on

I was working in the cafe at the time 9/11 happened. I, too, remember it being such a fun place to work. I loved making coffee and seeing familiar faces. We weren't writing names on cups...lol. But we need learn people's names and said "Hey Mike!" Sometimes I wonder if our many customers were all okay after 9/11. :( I do know that everyone in Borders had been accounted for. I had closed the night before and was due at work at 1pm on 9/11/01. Thank you so much for writing this post.

by Sara on

Do you remember Max he was a good friend I would like to reconnect with.

by Cathy Schwabe on

Hi Shell!

Rememeber me? I transferred in to WTC in 1997 as a bookseller, then music, then became a trainer ( that was a blast!) then took a music manager position up at Kips Bay in 1999. I left Borders in 4/2000 since I had gotten into PA school ( I've been a PA for 13 yrs now!) but heart always stayed and I still have some of my best friends from those days!

Thank you for the stroll down memory lane! I loved reading your post!

by Shell Bush on

I remember your name but can't place your face, unfortunately. I've actually had some luck tracking people down through LinkedIn but I have lost touch with the majority of folks. Of course, leaving NYC didn't help.

by Tom on

On 9/11 I was 19 and I worked at Strawberry in the mall across from the Disney Store (I forgot the exact name) and I had been told by management that we had to close the store before leaving. When Two World Trade Center came down unexpectedly, it crushed a large portion of the mall, and sent debris and dust everywhere. It had such force that the ceiling in the hallway outside the store weakened and a bunch of the tiles came down. We then got told what happened by officers who fled into the mall during the collapse. We all sat in Strawberry with the doors closed until one world trade center had come down. When that tower came down, it pretty much sealed the malls fate. The force of the tower crushed another large portion of the mall and shattered every window you could see. Additionally, several water pipes broke and the mall started to flood really bad. We evacuated out of Borders into what was left of 5WTC (Which was actually just starting to burn as we escaped) and left the area. My cousin Arby worked for the clean up crew and he snuck some photos of the mall around 9/20/01 and it was a complete disaster. Concrete and Steel everywhere, about a foot of water covering almost all of the floor near Strawberry, etc. It was very bad. There was no saving anything.

by Herman R Kelly on

I was in charge of Security on 9/11/01. I met some very interesting people at Borders Books 5 WTC.On 9/11/01 i was on the concourse level when I heard a loud BOOM, the rest was HISTORY
I was like family, having being employed there in 1999. I met GM Melissa G , EUGENE , Randy, Shelley, Shell, Nicole M.Events Coordinator Darryl.I have good memories. I would like to get in touch with Melissa G or EUGENE. If anyone knows of their wareabout's I will appreciate it very much. Thanks in advance..

by Lars on

I just saw your comment. I think of you and Eugene every Sept 11.

Add new comment