When I was a child, tucked safely away in the shadows of the mountains I called home, it was rare not to feel a sense of security. Yet that sense of safety went hand in hand with a peculiar kind of loneliness. What was going on with the rest of the world? What was I missing?
A little of that loneliness eased with the arrival of the Boone Mall in 1981. At the ripe old age of twelve I had access to a Waldenbooks store without having to be carted fifty miles down the mountain to Hickory. At last, a little slice of the world had come to me. But nothing good can last forever.
My latest visit home included the usual trip the mall with my mother, and I saw the sign I hoped I would never see. “Store closing. All items must go.” Words that cut like a knife to the heart. A store that was an integral part of my life for thirty years was a mass of empty shelves, stripped walls, and a flurry of shoppers who could not resist the tantalizing lure of seventy-five percent off. And I was in the thick of it, making my last purchases at a store that felt like an extension of me.
Durham and now Raleigh have been my homes since 2007, giving me access to four, yes, four Waldenbooks in the form of its parent company Borders. Those four stores will soon be cut down to one in the wake of Borders’ financial troubles, but I was convinced in my heart that my little Waldenbooks in Boone was safe. Yet my head knew better. And my worst fears were confirmed as I rounded the corner in the mall that weekend and saw the dreaded yellow sign.
Boone has undergone massive changes since 1981. More fast food chains and restaurants than you can shake a stick at, and a lot more stores than I thought my hometown would ever have. And through all the changes, that little store in the mall was my one refuge when I needed a bit of comfort. A little reminder that as fast as the world changes, I was still connected to it.
Maybe it’s not the store so much as the memories. Buying comic books every Tuesday. The first original “Star Wars” book in 1991 since “Return of the Jedi” in 1983. The first time I went to the mall with my grandfather after my grandmother died, and him giving me money to buy a book. It was supposed to be a loan, but you know how grandfathers are. You never pay the money back. And perhaps best of all, that breath-grabbing moment when you walk into a bookstore and see that hot new title you’ve been waiting for. I guess that’s what I’ll miss the most.
I know that most people feel like chain stores are getting what they deserve in these harsh economic times, but Waldenbooks was never just a chain store to me. It was a part of me, a reflection of my addictive love for books. I shop online, perhaps more than I should, and I’d love to have a Nook. I know that times are changing, and we must change with them. In fact, I ordered six Nooks for my school library last week. And I constantly show my students how to access books online. But at the end of the day there is something about the feel of a book, the smell, the pages, which hold a special place in my heart. I know that printed books are still going to be around for a long time to come, but for how much longer? I think I know part of the answer with the closing of my little part of the world, a place where I always felt as if I belonged.
Goodbye, Waldenbooks. It’s been a great ride. Thanks for the memories, and thanks for bringing a little slice of the world to a boy in the mountains who needed it.