Lessons in Preemptive Mourning

(Sookeun Jung)

(Sookeun Jung)

The strip mall was bathed in golden sun as I walked into Barnes & Noble today. The big man up there wanted me to stop, look, see the beauty in the concrete and Big Bird-yellow parking stripes and the lit up Barnes and Noble sign. Barnes & Noble is a temple of books, and for a second I could see a halo. I could almost hear God shouting All of this will soon be gone!

I’m sitting in a cafe that will soon be gone, surrounded by books that will only exist in the ephemeral online, listening to frantic high schoolers memorize algebra rules as they prepare for midterms. Part of me wants to shake them. Take action! I want to shout. Stop ordering things on Amazon! You want a place to study? Yeah? You want that limited time only $2 any size chai latte to be around forever? Buy a fucking book. But it wouldn’t help.

I grew up in Barnes & Noble. My house sat smack dab in the middle of two, each a twelve minute drive away, and my family would head out there after dinner to poke around. My sister and I would desperately pick between fantasy novels, comparing each one based on the cover, the reviews, the first few pages, trying to choose the right one and yet knowing with that futility that comes with childhood that whichever book we picked probably wouldn’t be as good as the one we left behind.

Now, as I make my way through through the fantasy section, I walk like Anne Boleyn on the way to her execution, knowing that death is across the cobblestone courtyard and some asshole in a multi-million dollar castle condemned me. Specifically: Jeff Bezos, Amazon CEO and Founder.

It’s very in vogue to hate Amazon. I spent thirty-five minutes at a New Years party shouting with a high school acquaintance’s college boyfriend about Amazon. As his girlfriend tried to tug him away to dance, he hollered hysterically over an all-ABBA soundtrack, “But all the individual packaging! The environment!”

We all, of course, buy things on Amazon. But why should hypocrisy stop us from hating?

Amazon is killing Barnes & Noble. That’s been their goal from the get-go. Jeff purposely offers books at a loss, losing money on Amazon Books to eliminate Barnes & Noble as competition. B&N, paying for store rent and employees, can’t keep up. And the minute B&N goes, Jeff will be able to jack the prices up again with his new, powerful nationwide book monopoly.

But it’s not particularly sexy to save Barnes & Noble. When the Drama Book Shop in New York was going out of business, Lin-Manuel Miranda launched a whole celebrity campaign to save it. He probably wrote it a rap song rhyming drama with Obama and shop with crop top. But where are the Barnes & Noble raps? Where are the celebrity endorsements?

You say: “Barnes & Noble is a corporation,” or “Barnes & Noble put small independent booksellers out of business in the 90s,” or “I prefer to buy books at small local businesses.”

Fine. But you know where there are no independent bookstores? My middle class, immigrant-heavy city of 80,000, which hasn’t had a bookstore since our branch of B&N folded three years ago and was replaced by a liquor mart. Luckily, we still have a B&N in the bougie neighboring town, but what about Middle America?

There aren’t enough independent booksellers to take the place of the B&N's sitting in valuable mall real estate across the American heartland. In those bookstore deserts, B&N is an oasis, able to survive so long only because it is a large corporation. And we are all going to rue the day when activist investors carve B&N up for its property. Suddenly, entire counties won’t have a single bookstore. Do we need another tech store in our malls? No. We do need Barnes and Noble.

It’ll succumb with a sort of sad exhalation of more and more desperate closing sales and offers of free cookies from the cafe with every purchase of a book.

An America without Barnes & Noble is an America without access to physical books. It is a book market so cutthroat that already fragile publishing houses will crawl to their graves. It is a nationwide literacy problem, but it is also a book industry problem. Oren Teicher, CEO of the American Booksellers Association, said, “It will be a disaster for the US book industry if that company went away.”

And because there are no high-profile protests and think-pieces, Barnes & Noble is going to die not with a bang, or even a whimper. It’ll succumb with a sort of sad exhalation of more and more desperate closing sales and offers of free cookies from the cafe with every purchase of a book.

Barnes & Noble never stops with the lessons, but now it’s teaching me a new one: how to mourn in advance. I walk around the freshly vacuumed green carpeting and I imagine it torn up from the concrete floors like the peeled layers of my heart. I see desperation in the brittle smiles of the temporary employees as they cheerfully direct customers to the Graphic Design section that will soon cease to exist. It’s like walking around a funeral home, but the type of cool funeral home where you leave with books you actually want to read instead of pamphlets on coffin sizes.

While the signs of Barnes & Noble’s impending doom are palpable, my immediate family has, so far, kept chugging along: me, my sister, my parents, my mom’s parents (Mike and Nancy, called Nana and Papa), my dad’s dad (Tom, called Grandpa; my maternal grandmother died before I was born), and my great-aunt Candace (Tom’s first cousin, just called Candy because Great-aunt feels very Victorian horror movie). My grand-family is part of my immediate family.

I grew up in the same town as my elderly relatives, and since both my parents worked incredibly long hours, they were very hands-on. They got lost driving my sister and I to soccer and dance practices, cheered at every sports game and recital, and took turns eating dinner with us (though not cooking it. At this point in his life, Grandpa’s diet is 70% fruit cups, and the best thing that one can say about Nana’s cooking is that she deals with a very temperamental oven).

They encouraged us to be wordy. Candy should have dropped me off on the side of the road after the third time I got in the car and started reading without saying hello, but did she? Nope. She let me sit there with my oily nose in a book while she served as my personal, unpaid chauffeur. Grandpa, a speech-writing wordsmith, would show up to dinner with riddles and dictionary themed quizzes and regale us with long-form jokes with punny punchlines. Nana would stuff the Christmas tree with Irish themed books or mystery novels. Papa read the books I wrote essays on so he could fully appreciate my supposed brilliance.

Grandpa reads every book on the bestseller list. It’s his thing. He doesn’t even bother reading the description. In 2011, he hit a snag. The first sex scene in the smash hit “Fifty Shades of Gray” ended in an extremely uncomfortable phone call begging my mother to come over and remove the monstrosity from his iPad. Mr. Grey will not be seeing you anytime soon.

My grand-family and Barnes & Noble share disasters. B&N announced its worst summer quarter ever around the same time Candy had a heart attack.

They’re book-lovers, and they’re old. Candy is now 91, Grandpa is 89, and both Nana and Papa are 85. They will read to the end.

My grand-family and Barnes & Noble share disasters. B&N announced its worst summer quarter ever around the same time Candy had a heart attack. She survived, and so far B&N has too, but she spent a week in the hospital and B&N condensed its Sci Fi section to fit toys. The year before, Grandpa was hospitalized for his atrial fibrillation the same winter that Barnes & Noble laid off its full time employees.

My sister called me that January, sobbing. She went in to find a book and didn’t see the usual employees she had long ago befriended. The girl in the cafe explained, “They fired them all yesterday. Everybody was hysterical. Some of them had worked here for thirty years. They fired everybody but the managers.” She leaned over the counter, murmured, “They didn’t give us any warning. People showed up for their normal day, and they were fired just like that.”

We had known in an abstract sense that Barnes & Noble was struggling-- Borders was long gone, the other Barnes & Noble nearby had closed several years before, and Amazon was taking ever increasing shares of the book market. But it had all felt far away-- our primary store never changed, just one paper-and-burnt-coffee-scented visit after another.

But suddenly, the outside world had invaded our B&N with sharp suits and bludgeoning briefcases. But abstractly knowing it was coming didn’t make it less painful-- over the phone, Nora cried as she murmured, “They even fired Mike the fantasy guy. Mike!”

Mike was gone. It’s been almost a year since the mass firing, and we haven’t seen Mike since. We never got to say goodbye.

My grand-family has been saying goodbye for years now. If you tell any of them you like something (Nana’s desk, Candy’s painting of an Italian harbor) they tell you it will be yours when they die. At this point, I’m terrified I’ll smile in the wrong direction and find myself the future owner of an oversized chintz couch or china cabinet I’ll feel too guilty to throw away.

To prevent this, I’ve made it a policy to never compliment anything. Nana’s new hat? Grandpa’s wicker rocking chair? “I hate it, you hear me? Terrible. Why would you even buy that? I thought you had taste, Nana!”

“I know Fifty Shades of Grey didn’t agree with you, but how about Fifty Ways to Romance a Rake? It’ll keep that a-fibrillating heart a-pumpin!”

But I would fill my future living room with so many wicker furnishings you couldn’t touch the floor if it would keep my grand-family sitting in their living rooms, reading their books. I like to imagine that if they never get to the end of their To Read stack, they just won’t die. I’ll make hundreds of trips to Barnes & Noble to replenish their libraries. “Grandpa,” I’ll say, “I know Fifty Shades of Grey didn’t agree with you, but how about Fifty Ways to Romance a Rake? It’ll keep that a-fibrillating heart a-pumpin!”

They’re all dying, though, no matter how many plot points they have left in the story. Not in the slow “we are all dying all the time” way, but in the, they probably have another year or two in them at most. I’m going to have to face death for the first time, and then a whole bunch of times in a row. God’s up there somewhere, waiting for his chance to say, “Hey, you liked your first funeral? Have three more!”

Three weeks ago, my grandmother was diagnosed with lung cancer. The same week, because bad things love company, she had an unrelated stroke and lost the use of her left side. She can’t walk, can’t type, can’t do most things she did with ease. She’s still in the hospital.

I went home from school for the weekend to visit her. I found her stuck in a wheelchair, bird-thin and bruised, and spent the afternoon wheeling her around the shiny, glass-lined hallways and threatening to let go of the chair whenever the laminated floor sloped. She was not amused.

I was terrified. I had been away during Candy’s stroke and Grandpa’s heart problems, and by the time I returned they were back to normal. This was the first time I looked at a grandparent and realized they are mortal. Nana’s had a full, wonderful life-- she raised four children then went to law school in her forties, spent a career advocating for abused women and public housing-- and somehow, that life will end. It’s one of those big, unfathomable truths that we are supposed to just know but don’t: people die.

I don’t really get that yet. The only deaths I’ve known are fictional, and somehow, I don’t think Dobby’s objectively tragic death and my grandmother’s eventual passing will inspire the same feelings (although I can assure you I wept full buckets and got snot all over my sleeves when Dobby died. He was a good elf).

I pray Barnes & Noble outlives them. After each funeral is over, I imagine myself going to B&N and reading a book in their honor.

I imagine death personified, like the Death in The Book Thief that talked and felt, and some part of me is convinced that if I just stretch my faith wide enough, I’ll break through and be able to argue with it. I have to believe that. There is an indigo, toothy, eight-legged monster tearing apart my stomach and crawling up my rib cage to clench my heart, reminding me whenever someone makes a bad pun that half my family is on their way out.

I pray Barnes & Noble outlives them. After each funeral is over, I imagine myself going to B&N and reading a book in their honor, chewing those cookies that both Nana and Candy were too diabetic to eat, and crying in the middle of the cookery section while a small child watches with rosy-cheeked alarm.

When they are all dead, B&N will give into the inevitable. After my childhood goes bankrupt and closes its doors for the last time, I hope to be standing there in the strip mall parking lot holding a flamethrower. I’ll paint the building with fire. I’ll watch the flames lick the fluorescent sign as Barnes and Noble lights up.

Barnes & Noble deserves a viking funeral. Barnes & Noble has been a warrior for good. It’s hosted a thousand story hours, provided millions of children with their first books, been the sight of my most intense-study sessions and more than a few of my tears. It’s a big, corporate home for book lovers across the country. It’s my home.

And my grandparents deserve viking funerals. They won’t have them—they’ll be buried in Catholic cemeteries with flowers and speeches. But they deserve viking funerals. Not because they are war heroes, or they saved the world—they didn’t—but because I love them.

When I burn down my Barnes & Noble, I’ll stand too close to the flames. I’ll feel a constellation of sparks burst against my skin, let them sting me. When I let my grandparents go, I want it to hurt.

EssaysMaeve Flaherty