It’s been exactly 950 years since the Battle of Hastings, when the Duke of Normandy defeated the Anglo Saxon King near the English coast. It would have been cold comfort to the dying King Harold to know that the Norman Conquest of October 1066 would be the last successful invasion of the British Isles in history. But according to legend, Harold took an arrow to the eye in that battle, and thus was in no mood to look at things in perspective.
I think I know how he felt. I, too, am mourning the fall of Hastings.
In July, the nationwide retailer filed for bankruptcy and announced it would be closing all of its stores. For 48 years, Hastings carried books, movies, video games, music and coffee, not to mention a geek’s paradise of comics and action figures. Now it follows Borders and Blockbuster to the retail media graveyard. For the past few weeks the local store has ceased rentals, slashed prices and started selling the furniture. But I imagine many folks in town were too busy watching construction of Searcy’s fourth Sonic drive-in to notice that our last general bookstore has closed its doors.
I went for the final time last Tuesday. Prior to that you might have spotted me there at least once per week. Hastings was the only place left around here where a person could browse thousands of movies — reading the box, discovering obscure films I’d never heard of and hunting old favorites that were still in stock. The book selection was not bad, and I enjoyed finding some of the titles I came for, as well as stuff I didn’t know I wanted to read until I saw it.
Just walking into Hastings gave me the sense of a media treasure hunt, set in the midst of a great place to watch people. I must confess, I like overhearing snippets of chatter as fellow customers skim the books and movies. Assuming that others like to do the same, I sometimes talked to myself in the new releases section, just in case someone was eavesdropping.
Bookstores are magical places, and they are fast disappearing from the landscape. This summer I visited a friend in Birmingham who took me to Reed Books downtown. Also called “The Museum of Fond Memories,” this 35-year-old time warp is exactly my kind of place. Packed floor to ceiling with books both used and rare, the rambling store was also stuffed with movie posters, vintage toys, vinyl records and decades of pop culture do-dads. It was hard to navigate the aisles without leaping over stacks of books. The smell of old paper was pungent. If someone bottled that scent up and sold it as cologne, I would reek of it daily.
Mr. Reed himself is a lively character — perfectly named — and I intentionally asked for the full tour because I love to hear book sellers hold court about their passion. He highlighted his exhaustive inventory for me, insisting that “a good bookstore should have everything.” And indeed he did. I browsed for two hours — listening in as customers talked politics and books. Various collectors came in hunting specific things. One was a Stephen King fan. A young couple looked for vintage Disney. I poked around in the Dickens section. They even had a first edition. But I’m sure Amazon has all that, too, minus the smell and conversation. And the soul.
A few days after that visit, I heard Hastings was closing. The Harding bookstore and the Bible House are still here, but Searcy’s last video store is gone. As is Staples, our last office supply megastore. And Pasta Grill. And Hancock Fabrics. Not to mention the fact that Walmart no longer carries my favorite Skillet Sensations entrée — Grilled Chicken and Vegetables. Plus, my number one crime drama just had its series finale, and on top of that, R2D2 died last month. If I get any more bad news, I may move to Birmingham.
Granted, not all bookstores have the same level of soul, and my last trip to Hastings was rather sad. Most of the books were gone, the shelves filled with tacky merchandise brought in to fill up the place. Rows of emoji pillows and Curl-A-Dog hotdog slicers (“As Seen on TV”) had converted my bookstore into a yard sale. Few shoppers were there to eavesdrop on. I loaded up on half-priced books and movies and headed to the counter, where a bored teenager chunked my purchases into a plastic bag, barely looking up. Neither of us acknowledged that this was it.
Sometimes life has seasons of contracting, balanced by seasons of expanding. What’s true with hairlines and pant sizes is also true with favorite retailers. Yes, media consumption has changed. Yes, everyone else switched to Netflix in 2007. But I like to get out. So I suppose now I’ll be reduced to standing in the rain at the Redbox machine, trying to decide if it’s worth a dollar to see “Zoolander 2.” Somehow using those dispensers always makes me feel like I’m buying cigarettes. So even if Hastings could never quite match a wonderland like Reed Books, it was all I had nearby. And now it’s gone.
But at least I can get a frozen blue raspberry lemonade at the new Sonic, which soon will be over 300 feet closer to the campus. Cold comfort, indeed.