Taking too long? Try again or cancel this request.


Love's Labours Lost

Ode to Borders

… I was a few months out of college and had gotten a job at Borders, the new bookshop that had just opened on State Street in Ann Arbor. I pinched myself all day long to make sure I was not dreaming. It was too good. After all those years of college, the classes that never fit right, even the good ones, all so far from what I longed for, which was a life of the mind that would wire me back to where I stood, or sat, that made sense when I looked out the windows of any of the rooms I lived in; after all the seasons of ill-paid drudge work—busing pizza trays, washing dishes, short-order cooking—I was finally home. I’d felt the rightness the first time I walked through the door into that long narrow space, before I even imagined I might apply to work there. The place was tailored just for me. I loved the look and the atmosphere: tall bookcases running the long length of the left wall, the best exposure given to fiction and poetry, new books interspersed with select, neatly hand-priced older books. There was no dross, no pandering to entertainment. I was susceptible, I admit, as romantic as could be in my daydreams. Sidestepping slowly along the wall—as I did day after day—or standing by the window table paging through the great gold-paper-covered volume of Jacques Henri Lartigue’s photographs, I thought: This—this is what I want! Meaning not just the books but the promise created by all of them taken together—reading and writing, everything that four years of college had so completely skirted. And then one spring day, walking past the front register on my way out, I saw the posted notice about an opening for a clerk. Astonishing—how many corridors you walk through, turning this way, that way, trying different knobs, looking for entry, losing heart, before you come to the door that opens as if it were the easiest thing in the world and you just step through.

I worked at that store for a year, as happy as I’ve ever been, not once heaving the load-hoisting sigh of the day job. I was excited to arrive and start my shift, unpacking, shelving titles, arranging tables, packing returns, helping customers. My coworkers became friends. We were all readers, adding and subtracting from our employee stashes all day long. There was a writer—at least one—and a scholar of structuralism, soon off to Paris, a philosopher of the occult … We moved in close quarters and the air was charged. If anyone asked me what I did, I said that I wrote, or would someday. When the desire is that strong it almost counts for the deed, though in truth the only things I wrote were notes and convoluted reflections about the books I was piling up by my bedside and trying to read all at once. The madness of it—as if running in spurts in many directions gains one anything. Maybe it does. In any case, all that nightly sampling and cross-referencing was just another version of what went on all day long in the aisles of the store, shelving, perusing, being reminded of something, checking for that, making notes on a card I kept in my pocket: koestler midwife toad… and right below it: saison en enfer. These jottings and what they represent, over years and years of working in bookstores and later just prowling—they are my education. And the path that leads to me typing here right now really did start there, that year after college, in those aisles and at those display tables. It was a new wanting, an appetite fired up by my coworkers and our customers, and the daylong jostle. Also the times, I can’t forget that: ideas were sexy and authors were on the covers of magazines, and when a book like Gravity’s Rainbow appeared, which it did while I was working there, we all felt a tremor move through our little world, if not the greater world that contained us …

Sven Birkerts

Comment on this foresight