Saturday, 31 March 2007


Bookshops are to book geeks like me what lone mountain caves are to long-bearded hermits. They are somewhere to kill time without over-eager shop assistants asking if they can help you every five minutes. Somewhere to meet a friend who is always notoriously late as browsing a bookshop is far more pleasant than standing on a windy street corner. Bookshops are also great for, well, looking at books.

Borders bookshops in particular have been my lone mountain cave during my travels in North America. To me and my family, Borders has became as much a part of the American experience as lard-filled doughnuts, watching strange daytime TV and visiting shopping malls the size of a small city containing such diversions as an orchestra of life-sized mechanical bears. Between the impressive collection of books that American Borders’ bookshops contain, the deliciously comfortable seats and the conscious policy of staff leaving customers alone while they browse, a Borders bookshop is a weary traveller’s dream. As whoever came up with the Borders concept also deliberately ignored the sacred commandment of book lovers “thou shalt not drink hot beverages and eat cake while reading”, when my feet were crying for mercy after hours of walking around an American city, finding a Borders always felt a bit like striking gold.

Borders in Honolulu was a place to enjoy the crisp air conditioning and shelter from the sweltering heat and humidity, while enjoying the view of palm trees from inside the café. Borders in Chicago was the opposite, the warmest place I could find to sit and read on a December day so cold I thought I would lose the use of my fingers. Borders St Louis was where I went to reduce my heart rate back to normal after making the ill-informed decision to visit the top of the towering St Louis arch. Borders in Los Angeles was a place to pretend that I wasn’t in the smog capital of the world. For my Dad, Borders in San Francisco was where he went to occupy his mind after witnessing a bank hold up and shooting while innocently walking down a street in the downtown area.

The Borders formula is a cunning one indeed. Despite all intentions of going to a Borders to escape the weather and rest tired feet, trying to lug home to New Zealand far too many books than was sensible also became part of the American holiday experience.

Given my long association with Borders, and also having recently inspected the one on Queen St in Auckland, I was excited at the prospect of one opening on Lambton Quay. The morning it opened, I scrambled to the new store for an initial inspection. On the surface, it met with approval. Good travel section. Lots of magazines. Great non-fiction books. However, upon returning a few days later for a proper peruse Borders Lambton Quay started to feel … odd. I was at a loss to understand why – the books were good, the chairs comfortable and the winning café-and-browsing formula was the same. What was missing? I met up with my Dad in the café to discuss. Why was this Borders different? Dad hit on the answer after we heard some staff talking near-by.

“You know” he said. “the thing I always notice about America Borders are the heavy American accents over the intercom.”

He was right. The only reason why that Lambton Quay Borders didn’t fit with my idea of what a Borders ought to be like was simple – it was on Lambton Quay. My feet weren’t sore. My house was a short bus ride away, and I had not been walking around Wellington all day. What’s more, I knew exactly where it was located, so hadn’t stubbled upon it after a day of being a tourist.

Next time I go to North America, or any of the other Borders bookshops around the world, it will be different. Already Borders on Lambton Quay has become a place to meet friends who are notoriously late, and somewhere to kill time when I don’t want to be pestered by over-eager shop assistants. When next in an American Borders, I wonder if I will think about the vegemite on toast you can buy at the one on Lambton Quay, as well as the New Zealand history and literature books found there. I wonder if doing something that used to feel part of the American experience might, next time, leave me feeling more than a little homesick.

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