I stood in line juggling a stack of books. A really delicious stack of books, I might add. As I waited to check out, I culled a few titles that I didn’t absolutely need and left them on a table for that purpose. I threw an extra book in my pile at that table, justifying it as it wasn’t for me, it was for Mike.
It’s the swan song of Borders, and on Friday I stopped at the store I’ve called “my Borders” since 2005 to pick through the leftovers of a sale that has been going on for a month or more.
I stole glances at the people around me, all of whom juggled similar stacks of books, and all of whom, I’m sure, would call themselves booklovers. Rather than just booklovers, though, we were book vultures. The line between the two blurs when the entire contents of the store are 60 percent off or more.
When I slid my leaning tower of books across the counter, the cashier next to me chirped the total for her customer. “That’s six books for a total of $23.86. What a bargain!” “Nope, you can’t beat that,” the customer said as she reached for her credit card.
I wondered as my cashier scanned my selections if the people around me were buying the books they were buying because they wanted them or because they were on sale. Every book in my tower (with the exception of a stargazing book I’d picked for Mike) had been at least on my radar if not on my Amazon wishlist. Every book I’d selected had been one I’d been meaning to buy and was buying now in one fell swoop rather than buying them piecemeal.
For example, I’ve been mentally salivating over the latest David McCullough, The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris, since before it came out in May. I vowed, however, that there was no way I was paying the list price of $37.50. Nope, I could wait — and not just for the paperback. I could wait to luck out at a book fair, one of those great events where book nerds give in to their spouses who have asked them to get rid of some of these books already and come home with the same number of new treasures to fill the space they just cleared out on the shelves. I could wait for the price drop at Amazon Marketplace. And now I didn’t have to. At $15 before tax, I was getting a better price than I possibly could online. So McCullough became the foundation of my pile.
But as the people next to me crowed over their good fortune, I remembered: We are the problem. We, the book vultures, are the reason Borders is closing. We can always find a better bargain somewhere else, and so we do.
On Thursday I visited an independent bookstore in suburban St. Louis. It’s a great store, straight out of the imaginations of all of us kids who dreamed of owning a bookstore some day. Floor to ceiling books. Books stacked on books. Used books. Rare books. New books. Classic books. Books upon books. But the real reason I was in the store was because I’d bought a Groupon worth $25 in merchandise. As I always do when I have a Groupon, I spent more than the Groupon was worth. But as I looked through the inventory for books on my list (looking as always to build my presidential biography collection), I reshelved several, refusing to pay “that much” for a used book. I was happy to be supporting an independent bookstore and pleased to be browsing in someone’s dream, but I still couldn’t bring myself to buy something I didn’t think was a deal.
I’ve recently heard disparaging comments about this frugality being a generational thing, that people of “my generation” feel so entitled that they don’t think they should have to pay full price for anything, even things they love. I was born in 1982, so I hover on the cusp between Generation X and Generation Y — although making the distinction in this case really doesn’t matter, as both generations bear the selfish and entitled mantels. My grandparents come out of the Silent Generation (those who were born in the Depression, too young to serve in WWII, past the typical age of service or protest during Vietnam) and thus are more frugal than I am, refusing to pay more than $12.95 a month for internet service. I don’t think my attempts to get the most for my money or their hesitance to spend money on what they consider luxuries comes from entitlement; I think it comes from knowing what it is to not have anything. I’ve never been Depression-poor, but I certainly have had to be frugal, and have had to find ways to make what little I’ve had stretch.
In this era of austerity, we’re all trying to do more with less, to find ways to have the lifestyle we want on the money we have. In the end, Borders is just one of the stores who has paid for the bargains we’ve craved.
(Originally written September 6, 2011)