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Brian McGrory

Vanishing ink in Hub’s core

By Brian McGrory
Globe Columnist / June 29, 2011

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Warning: This is a Whitey-free zone today. This space will contain no phrases like “reign of terror.’’ You will not see words like “thug’’ or “maim.’’ There will be no mobster nicknames, no rampant speculation on whom he might give up, no guesswork on how many millions he has stashed away in an overseas bank.

Instead, we are going to address something that is far more mundane: The complete and irrefutable downfall of the city of Boston.

By that, I am referring to the closing of the Borders in Downtown Crossing, but this is about more than a store in a hard-hit industry in a hard-luck neighborhood. When this Borders shuts its doors before year’s end, it’s tantamount to pulling the one thread that is holding the fabric of a city together.

First and foremost, there is this stunning fact: After Borders is gone, it will leave Boston, the literary capital of the United States, with exactly one major bookstore within the city limits. That store is the Barnes & Noble in the Prudential Center, and who knows how long it will be around.

To put this in perspective, Columbus, Ohio, has more major bookstores than Boston — many more. So do San Diego and San Jose and just about any other city you can name. It wasn’t that long ago when the Harvard Bookstore stood on Newbury Street across from the massive Waterstone’s, not far from the Brentano’s in the Copley Mall.

I get the impact of the Kindle and the iPad and the fact that everyone who owns one has an entire bookstore in the palm of their hands. I get that Borders went bankrupt and is shutting a bunch of its stores.

But I was in that Borders yesterday, as I am on more than a few days, and the place was as it always is — packed. There was a line at the checkout, even with five cashiers. There was a crowd at the magazine racks. There were people in every leather chair and sofa. There were passersby combing the bargain racks on the plaza outside.

Which gets to my other point. Borders is the living room of Downtown Crossing, with a patio thrown in for good measure. With its regal 30-foot ceilings, 35,000 square feet of space, and prominent spot on just about the busiest corner in town, it is where Boston goes when it needs a quiet break.

Can you picture the site as another clothing store for teenage girls, or a purveyor of cellphones, or an off-price retailer like all the others down the street? Worse, can you picture it empty while the Clarendon Group, the reputable landlord, waits for the right tenant to knock on its door? Downtown Crossing, already sick, will die overnight.

So I called Peter Meade with what I explained to him is the best idea I will ever have. Meade is a smart man. He is also the new head of the Boston Redevelopment Authority, a job that previously required one critical talent, the ability to say, “Yes, Mayor.’’ Meade, hopefully, is changing that portfolio.

I advised Meade that the BRA should extend the lease of Borders through 2012, buy all the merchandise at a cut rate, keep employing its 68 workers, and call it, “Without Borders’’ — a city-owned bookstore in a city that loves books. Seriously, it wasn’t on the original Borders list of 200 underperforming stores. The company never wanted to close it. The BRA could keep the site vibrant, maintain Boston’s literary tradition, and give the building owners time to find the ideal tenant — all while turning a profit.

Meade was not as excited as I thought he’d be. Actually, he basically called me a garden variety nut. “That’s not the building we’d spend scarce resources on,’’ he said, the implication being that it will attract a good tenant on its merits.

I don’t know. If the city wants to play this one by the book, it might be a sad end indeed.

Brian McGrory is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at mcgrory@globe.com.