Sunday, May 13, 2012

A Farewell to Mr. Paperback

   
Today I'm honored to present to you the first ever guest post on Pleasant Family Shopping! It’s written by Kendra Bird, a native of Bangor, Maine, anthropology student, avid retail history fan and a friend of this site from almost the very beginning.  For those from or familiar with Maine (especially the Bangor area), this will be of particular interest, but Kendra writes about something so many of us can relate to, regardless of location– the closing of a lifelong favorite store and the decline of the local mall. Shown above are some photos, vintage ads and articles she provided for this post. Enjoy!   

I went to say goodbye to my childhood bookstore today, but by the time I arrived, it was too late. The lights were off and the shelves, once bursting with books, magazines, gifts, stuffed animals and other items, were bare; some of them had even already been removed from the store’s now-lifeless confines. 

This wasn’t the first trip that I’d made to Mr. Paperback, located in Bangor, Maine’s 42-year-old Airport Mall, in the last week. Prior to today’s pilgrimage, I had wandered in a handful of times, purchasing various discounted items from the dwindling stock on its shelves. I had also been fortunate to acquire some memorabilia from the store itself; now in my possession are a number of rescued wooden signs that, for as long as I can recall, stood atop the various bookshelves, advertising the type of offerings present in each section. “SPORTS,” “HISTORY,” “CHILDREN 8-12,” some of them declare to no one in particular. Others, whimsically, show their age: “TIQUES & COLLECTIBLE,” one reads, while another proclaims, “ILDING CONSTRUCTIO.” One, perhaps poignantly, using hand-cut blue adhesive letters, reads simply: “MAINE.” 

Mr. Paperback was not just a bookstore…it was a local, independent bookstore, based here in Maine, with several locations around the state. At one time, its reach had been even more widespread, but some of the stores in the chain shuttered as the decades passed. The company had its origins in a downtown Bangor location, half a century ago, and the location to which I personally have such an attachment has been operational since its host mall opened its doors in 1970. Over the years, the mall saw each and every original tenant go out of business, or relocate -- some of them moving across town to the larger Bangor Mall, which opened in 1978 -- aside from Mr. Paperback, Radio Shack, and Doug’s Shop ’n Save; the latter is technically still in operation today as a state-of-the-art Hannaford supermarket, which is now the flagship anchor of the entire shopping center. 

Even in 1990, according to a supplement to the Bangor Daily News issue of April 26th of that year, “only a few stores remain[ed] from the stores that [had] opened in the mall” twenty years earlier. Original anchors Freese’s and Woolco, both department stores (the first local to Bangor, the second a nationally-known discounter), were long gone, as were many of the mall’s interior names. Nevertheless, Mr. Paperback stayed in business, first absorbing the space belonging to Spencer’s Gifts, which had relocated to the Bangor Mall, and then part of an adjacent restaurant, the remainder of which is now a Rent-a-Center.

During the same year that the Airport Mall was celebrating its twentieth birthday, I was eight years old going on nine, and starting to purchase my own books and magazines with my allowance money. There were only two places that I regularly did this: Mr. Paperback, and the B. Dalton store that was in the Bangor Mall (astute followers of the ebbs and flows of retail will note that the B. Dalton chain has also met its demise). I vividly remember the day that I purchased my first issue of Disney Adventures magazine at the Airport Mall Mr. Paperback. I remember seeing it on the shelf, finding out that it had a Tale Spin comic in the back of it (back then, we didn’t use the terms “fangirl” or anything like that, but I totally was one in regard to that particular cartoon), and insisting to my parents that I purchase it. This was in the fall of 1990, and I was only nine years old, yet this memory is still etched prominently in my mind over two decades later.

Until today, the children’s magazines and comic books still filled that same section of shelving on the back wall, and, despite no longer belonging to that demographic, I would always wander by there whenever I stopped by the store. The shelves were the same, the carpet was the same (though it seemed to be held together with mailing tape in progressively more places over the years), the (I‘m assuming) anti-shoplifting mirrors that ran above the shelving along the back of the store were the same. I only knew one other store that had mirrors like that, predating the fancy cameras and whatnot that stores boast today: the Bangor Mall CVS, which is also no longer in operation.

Over the years, I have bought fewer and fewer books, despite being a voracious reader as a child. This is largely due to simply being too busy to read for leisure; academic pursuits and gainful employment take up the majority of my time, and what little reading that I do manage to do is predominantly related to my areas of study. Despite this, I did pick up one book last week during Mr. Paperback’s “Going out of Business” sale; it was a graphic novel, which is not a literary format that I typically gravitate towards (though my husband is a big comic book guy), but it looked appealing to me. I think back now to that day in the waning weeks of fall 1990 -- it was not the potential intellectual merit of Disney Adventures that leapt out at me; it was the comic in the back. So, too, was the root of my initial interest in Gene Luen Yang’s Level Up, which I read cover-to-cover a couple days later and found greatly enjoyable. Will it, decades from now, hold as firm a place in my memories as that now dog-eared Disney magazine from days long past?
 
The brick-and-mortar bookstore is an endangered species, much like another beloved institution of mine, the brick-and-mortar record store. Both of these are being replaced by commerce centered around electronic books (ewww!) and mp3s (yuck!) in exchange for physical formats. While I jest somewhat -- these media formats both have their uses and their merits, and I have been known to utilize both at various times -- there is nothing like holding a physical book in your hand, and seeing the words come alive with the turning of each page, or carefully placing a record on a vintage turntable and hearing its music, crisp and clean and warm, emanating from your speakers. That said, Mr. Paperback’s resilience in a dying industry, especially within the confines of a mall that has teetered on the precipice above “dead mall” status at least once or twice during its lengthy history, is nothing short of impressive. All good things do seem to find their way to eventual endings, though, and it is into the annals of history that the longstanding local book chain must now transition.
 
It is into those same annals of history, too, for the memories of Mr. Paperback that I hold so dear. All the bookstores that I frequented in my childhood are gone, as well as the stores at which I bought my first cassette tapes years ago. The Airport Mall itself, too, bears little resemblance to the mall that I grew up with, in which I went shopping with my mother, my grandmother, or other relatives. The closing of Mr. Paperback is almost the final death blow to the mall that I knew. Rines, the local women’s clothing store that my mother used to drag me into, despite my pleas to not have to endure another store full of clothes and devoid of toys? It’s now the county DMV office, though it bears many architectural vestiges of its former self. Twin City Coin, where I bought baseball cards with my dad as a kid? It’s now a sketchy establishment hawking “For Tobacco Use Only” paraphernalia. Dream Machine, the arcade that my brother and I used to take our report cards to in order to get free tokens for games? It’s now the “Maine Smoke Shop,” a considerably less-kid-friendly place. Freese’s Department Store? I bid farewell to that local legend back in the late 1980s, when a much younger version of myself peered through a darkened doorway into a lifeless store, where countertops and registers were covered by white cloths, almost like a room full of inanimate ghosts; this I vividly remember as the moment that I became interested in retail history, and the lives and deaths of individual stores, an interest that, obviously, remains with me now.

As Mr. Paperback goes gentle into that good night (apologies to Dylan Thomas), I find myself both regretful and relieved that work and academic obligations prevented me from getting to the store in time to say goodbye on this day, which I had been informed would contain its final hours of operation. It felt like I was in a film as I walked hastily into the mall after driving over directly from my workplace. I saw the darkness behind the plate-glass windows before I even rounded the corner. I knew it was over, and I was greatly saddened, but I also knew that I had been spared the inevitable emotional awkwardness of saying goodbye to a space that was so crucial to my childhood.

I snapped a few photos, peered wistfully through the glass into the darkened interior of the store, and walked back outside. I called my husband, told him I was at the Airport Mall, and said, “I didn’t make it in time.” He understood.

Some might find it silly, the act of saying goodbye to a place. But sentimentality is powerful, and while some are not burdened by it, others form great attachments to those things which provoke feelings of nostalgia -- the sights, sounds, tastes of our pasts -- the “good old days” that were rarely actually as good as we consider them to be in retrospect. I am in the latter camp, and I find no shame in that.

So farewell, Mr. Paperback. You will always have a place in my memories, and those, I’m sure, of many other people as well. 

Oh, and thanks for selling me that big computer desk for five dollars the other day, the one from the back room that had the cobwebs and price stickers from 1995 on it. It’s found a good home, I assure you.

Maybe someday, I’ll even write a book on it.

Mr. Paperback closed on March 26, 2012. The first photo is from their now defunct website, the others were taken by Kendra.  

32 comments:

  1. Sniff, sniff. Waaaaaah. I miss my old stores too.

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  2. Outstanding post. I understand your feelings very well as I too have stared at the darkened spaces that once housed a favorite retail place that has disappeared into oblivion and recalled the memories of buying a record, seeing a movie, or having a meal with my best girl. Luckily, I have also been able to pick up a token or two from a few of them that in some odd way makes the passing a bit more bearable and puts a smile on my face as I catch a glimpse of it sitting on a shelf and those memories come flooding back.

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    1. Thank you! I will always be reminded of Mr. Paperback when I look at the signs that I was able to purchase (for $0.50 apiece; a very fair price!)...I'm glad that you have souvenirs of some of the places that are important to you; often times we don't realize the value of these places until they are no longer in existence.

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  3. This was a wonderfully wirtten post. Bravo to Kendra for providing the great photos and discussing a familar concept (the book store) through the lens of an unfamiliar chain for me.

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    1. Thank you, Didi -- I'm glad that you enjoyed it!

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  4. Great job! I too have mourned the loss of many book and music stores over the years. Though digital formats may be convenient, they're simply no substitute for their physical counterparts. When I was a kid back in the 1990s, going to the mall was an event. We'd often take in a movie, then browse the book, music and toy stores. We'd end the day with a few games at the arcade. (I didn't realize Dream Machine was a national chain!) Though we never had Mr. Paperback down here in Florida, I was a big fan of B. Dalton, and fondly remember the children's department, where I would eagerly snatch up the latest book in the Goosebumps series each month. Though my local mall continues to thrive, it's little more than one shoe store after another, punctuated by the occasional Game Stop. The fun is gone.

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    1. Thanks, Rebecca! Yes, I too remember the mall being an "event"; I recall my grandmother taking me to York Steak House at the Bangor Mall, and spending the day shopping. I was fascinated by York's sliding cafeteria-style trays -- little kids are captivated by the strangest things, I guess!

      My brother and I were very fond of Dream Machine; there was at least one other in Maine (the Maine Mall in South Portland), which lasted well into the late 90s, if memory serves. It might have been around into the early 2000s, in fact; I remember playing some pretty 'modern' games there. That said, it was only similar to my beloved, tiny Airport Mall arcade in name; that place exists only in faint memories.

      Skee Ball was my game; I remember the machines being in the rear right-hand corner of the small arcade space. I still play Skee Ball whenever I get the chance!

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    2. Skee Ball all the way, Kendra! I used to be pretty good at it, but am sorely in need of practice! ;)

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  5. Thank you for sharing your dear memories with us! I have memories of a not dissimilar book store, at Springfield, MO's now-demolished North Town Mall. Originally, the store was a part of a very small chain, called Cole's. I loved to go in on Sunday afternoons with my grandma. Sometimes I would live with an old-time radio cassette, or some little paperback. But I loved the atmosphere of the quiet little bookstore in the quiet little mall. It eventually became a Waldenbooks before the mall closed and vanished into history to make way for a Wal-Mart SuperCenter. No e-reader could ever be so dear to my memory as that little bookstore.

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    1. The atmosphere certainly has a lot to do with it...no giant store can replicate that. Thank you for sharing your tale of a long-defunct bookstore; it's through communicating our memories of these places that they remain "alive," in a sense.

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  6. "...there is nothing like holding a physical book in your hand, and seeing the words come alive with the turning of each page, or carefully placing a record on a vintage turntable and hearing its music, crisp and clean and warm, emanating from your speakers."

    Kendra, you are my type of person! I have an e-reader, but usually just load it with freebies. It's convenient for vacation--before, we were carrying a bag of books with us--and at SF conventions, otherwise I want a real book in my hands. (I also get some magazine subscriptions in e-format; less paper waste.) Your "Mr. Paperback" sounds like my beloved "Paperback Books" which was on Weybosset Street in Providence until the early 1970s, so crammed with books that the cashier sat in an elevated booth. There were no room for the rock'n'roll posters, either; they were on the ceiling! I could still walk into that store right now and find the mysteries (back corner on the right-hand side) or the media tie-in books (one shelf down from the cashier's space). And now I'm driving by empty Borders stores, sighing unhappily each time; Barnes & Noble and Books-a-Million just aren't the same.

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    1. I haven't yet succumbed to the temptation of endless text portability, though I have welcomed the use of books in .pdf form for academic research. I read all my news, etc., online; it is less wasteful, as you point out, and it saves money! I'm not sure, however, that I can ever visualize a day in which I stop buying physical books altogether.

      Paperback Books sounds like it was an awesome store; though it is long gone, I'm glad you are able to maintain such distinct and beloved memories in regard to it.

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  7. I can relate to this post, having lost Encore Books, B. Dalton, Waldenbooks, and now Borders in or near Park City Mall (still, though, a hopping place) in Lancaster PA. Before the internet, I discovered the world through the books and magazines I found there. A trip for a new Star Trek novel was a huge deal! Today, I live online through book bloggers, but always leave my local used bookstore with a few.

    Kendra-I too was 9 in 1990, and remember Disney Adventures fondly. I liked Tailspin, but was more a Rescue Rangers girl...

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    1. I loved the Rescue Rangers and DuckTales as well...the post-Darkwing Duck Disney Afternoon, however, began to lose my interest. I'd like to get all of those series on DVD eventually.

      I am just getting into Star Trek (TNG) myself; my husband is a big fan, and (because we love obsolete formats around here!) he has almost the entire series on VHS tape!

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  8. Thank you for all the wonderful feedback, folks; this piece was truly a pleasure for me to write. I'm very pleased to see that so many people are able to relate to it. I'm honored that Dave (whose writing I have a tremendous amount of respect for!) wanted to feature this piece on PFS, and I am so glad that you all enjoyed it. I would be happy to field any questions re: Mr. Paperback, the Airport Mall, or Maine retail to the best of my ability. Thanks, everyone!

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  9. I *think* I just posted a comment, but if I wasn't signed in for some reason, I shall once again express how appreciative I am that you all enjoyed this piece and were able to relate to it! It's an honor to appear in Dave's blog, which I have been a fan of for quite some time, and the fact that, via my writing, I am able to stir memories in those I have never met is perhaps an exceptional form of flattery.

    Any questions, feel free to inquire! Thanks again!

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    1. The honor is mine, Kendra. Thanks for sharing this with all of us!

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  10. Great post. It hits very close to home.

    I assume your Airport Mall is/was like my Morris County Mall in Cedar Knolls, NJ. Likely an early 70's building that featured two anchor stores separated by an indoor mall that featured a McDonalds, arcade, shoe store, Radio Shack and small bookstore called the Happy Booker. Over the years (I had moved to the area in 1984) the stores inside the mall changed/closed by Happy Booker managed to survive. It was probably the last to leave before the indoor part of the mall was reconfigured with a new McDonalds and Radio Shack, although the plans for the interior were eventually slashed because of lack of tenants and the space replaced with a TJ Maxx. I believe the store relocated to a (somewhat) nearby strip mall but didn't survive the onslaught of Barnes & Nables and Borders.

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    1. Thank you, Rob! That does sound similar to the Airport Mall/Mr. Paperback story, almost eerily so. A Google search showed that the Morris County Mall "remains" are now known as the Cedar Knolls Plaza (if I am not mistaken); my husband is actually from North Jersey (he grew up in Sussex County), so maybe next time that we are down there, we can swing by and check it out if there's anything left to see. Thanks for commenting!

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  11. Thank you so much for this article.

    I'm 43 years old. Some of the most significant books of my childhood were purchased at the Mr. Paperback at the Maine Coast Mall in Ellsworth in the 1970's. What a special that was to me. I still have some of the books that I purchased there over the years, and I'm sad to think that when I'm next in Ellsworth, Mr. Paperback will no longer be there...

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    1. I was able to visit the Maine Coast Mall store a final time in late March; I thought I had taken a photo of it, but I just reviewed my files from around that time, and I unfortunately was mistaken. While I am not exceptionally well-versed on the Maine Coast Mall (I spent a few years working at a supermarket in the Ellsworth Shopping Center in the late 2000s; otherwise, my time spent in Ellsworth was limited largely to family trips in the summmertime), I know that it has undergone significant changes as well, and the loss of Mr. Paperback will, like in the case of the Airport Mall, make it even less recognizable from its state in decades long passed.

      My final trip to Mr. Paperback was an unexpected visit to the Waterville store in early April; I have a photo of that store's exterior facade here: http://www.flickr.com/photos/mightykendar/7224471578/

      Thanks for your comment -- I hope that, every time you look at any of the books that you purchased at Mr. Paperback, you remember it fondly.

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  12. I had a much longer comment written but the new comment system ate it.

    I remember Mr. Paperback from the ads carried on WLBZ and other Bangor TV stations we received here in Nova Scotia in the '70s and '80s, and especially associate it with the voice of WLBZ's legendary announcer Eddie Driscoll, who did the voice-overs for many of the commercials they aired at that time. I vaguely remember visiting one of their stores during a vacation trip to Maine and also recall the Airport Mall when visiting Bangor with my parents in the '70s. Even then, it struck me as a troubled mall.

    Just like when a friend leaves or even worse, passes away, it is tough to lose a store for which you have fond memories. Time marches on, and not always is that a good thing.

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  13. Thanks for your comment, Greg, and for sharing your memories of these commercials (I'd love to see one!). Eddie Driscoll (and Mason Mutt) actually came up in conversation today with my father, uncle, and grandmother!

    Your impression of the Airport Mall in the '70s is a very interesting one -- I was always under the impression that it was a "happening place" until the larger Bangor Mall opened in 1978, but I wasn't born until '81, so my knowledge of the mall's first decade is strictly limited to recollections from others like yourself.

    Thank you for sharing your memories and your feelings...and a shout-out to Nova Scotia, from which my great-grandfather came in the early 20th century (Parrsboro, specifically). A beautiful province, and one that I hope to visit again in the coming years.

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  14. Mr.Paperback closing is strange. I always remembered seeing these stores here and there across Maine. They withstood the test of time. It felt as if this local chain has its own niche market.

    Borders Books, B. Dalton, Waldenbooks closed but Mr.Paperback somehow survived after all these years, and without the bells and whistles of big chains. So I'm not sure if the Airport Mall can be called a Mall anymore...

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    1. I'm not sure either, Patrick. There are a few actual "stores" inside the mall portion, but not a whole lot...the interior is now comprised only of Radio Shack, the pet store, Maine Smoke Shop, Country Hearts (a craft-type store), Gazebo Sports and Gifts, Rent-a-Center, an Asian nail place, Kokopelli's (the "for tobacco use only" store), and the DMV office. The mall entrance to Ocean State Job Lot (formerly Woolco/Rich's) is now blocked off, though the mall entrance to Fashion Bug (formerly the Freese's entrance) remains open. Honestly, if it weren't for the DMV, and the fact that the anchors do so well, I would certainly consider the Airport Mall a dying mall. Perhaps, despite this, it still is, and has been for quite some time.

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  15. Great posting, Kendra! Chains come and go, but some of them ingratiate themselves into your psyche and just won't let go, even after their physical presence gives up the ghost. I, too, was haunted by that empty Freeses storefront at the Airport Mall.

    My most-missed chain is LaVerdiere's Super Drug Stores, which had just about anything a growing boy could want, including seemingly every "as-seen-on-TV" item ever made and was open on Sundays (their niche before Maine's Blue Laws were abolished, sealing their fate.) Even now I can remember the high-pitched hiss from their flourescent lighting and stacked-to-the-rafters merchandising (or maybe it just seemed that way because I was shorter then.) Rite Aid, to which the LaVerdiere family sold their chain in 1994, was a big letdown by comparison.

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    1. Thank you -- and I am glad that the "empty Freese's" memory is not one that I am alone in having. I remember Laverdiere's to some extent; I know that I went in the Broadway one (now the Salvation Army Family Store, I believe) at least a handful of times as a kid, and I seem to recall them having a handful (or maybe just one) of coin-up video games in their vestibule (Pac-Man? I think there was a big name there). Rite-Aid seemed drab and boring when they first came on the local scene, and they still do. I remember Wellby Super Drug (owned by Hannaford, if memory serves) as well; I think Rite Aid took over some of their locations (Third and Union)?

      I was given a Laverdiere's plastic bag at Marden's once a few years ago; I don't recall whether or not I saved it. I hope I did.

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  16. I remember you coming into the store frequently and I am the one who sold you all of the displayers, signs, and the old table. You happened to have been one of my favorite customers. :)

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    1. Apologies for the significantly late reply -- I've been working at an archaeological site in the Machias Bay region for the last week or so, and my internet access is rather limited! I'm very glad that you were able to read this piece...it was a pleasure for me to write, and I hope that it serves, and will continue to serve, as an at-least-adequate eulogy for a business that, I think, affected many lives, at least in some small way, over its 40-plus years of existence. Thank you so much for reading, and for your very kind comment!

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  17. Retail stores that we grew up hold near and dear memories for many of us, regardless of age or generation.

    Buying that first 45 rpm with your own money, that first paperback novel (I could only afford remainder paperback bookstores which sold books with the front covers torn) and other stuff are cherished moments in each of our life stories.

    Nothing stays for ever. The retail leaders of today will also either evolve or fade away.
    The countless department and discount chains, supermarkets, record shops, book shops, etc. are the past, and since history seems to repeat itself, will we miss Pennys or Costco just as much as we miss those other merchants we supported and shopped. Only time will tell.

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  18. Great post - thanks for sharing a part of your life.
    I agree that nothing can replace the physical book, record or store for that matter. Although I [obviously] use computers as a tool, they are just that; a tool. They cannot provide the same feelings as holding a good heavy book in your hands, flipping pages at will and setting it down for a minute being able to pick right back up where you left. Same thing for a record album [and CDs dont cut it there, either], or any other material manifestation of goods. No one will ever have happy memories of sitting at their desktop downloading an mp3... And the world is a much poorer place for it. The current generic mass marketers will not be lamented upon their passing as they have no style, no substance, no...class. They just "are". Regrettably, due to gross societal shifts and changes, the times of shopping and enjoying it, as well as brand and store loyalty are mostly gone, never to return.

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  19. This was almost painful to read as it brought back memories of my childhood bookstore- Waldenbooks. They closed in a similar fashion several years ago- and I didn't realize they were going out of business- so needless to say it was a sad day when I saw that the store had closed. It was the end of an era. I'm glad you were able to salvage some keepsakes to remember your beloved Mr. Paperback by!

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