RIP Blockbuster, Borders, and so many more.
The 2010s were a decade of extreme retail innovation. Instagrammy direct-to-consumer companies like Warby Parker and Everlane sprang up seemingly overnight; hulking businesses like Amazon permeated what felt like every aspect of our shopping lives.
There’s a cost, of course, to such breakneck change, and that came in the form of what’s been called the “retail apocalypse.” Not just the result of these new upstarts and consolidated power (private equity certainly did its part); the death of many traditional retail chains left hundreds of thousands without jobs, and the shuttering of countless storefronts.
We asked some of our favorite writers to eulogize the brands that meant a lot to them, which breathed their last in the past decade. (Since bankruptcy is so complicated — brands that file don’t always die, zombie companies resurrect themselves all the time — we allowed somewhat loose criteria here.) Here, a handful of remembrances for the retailers that shaped us.
In 2005, when the American Apparel store on North 6th Street in Williamsburg opened, I was 24. Like many of my peers, I had a complicated dependency on the store’s clothes. I understood the brand and its founder to be somewhat icky while simultaneously, for overlapping reasons, cool, a tension that was still possible and in fact culturally widespread until fairly recently!
The chain, which sold underpriced solid color cotton blend basics as well as a line of ambitious-to-a-fault original designs, had women my age in its crosshairs. If I needed a pair of leggings to wear to yoga or a hat because it had suddenly cold-snapped or a bikini with absolutely zero support or a last-minute Halloween costume or a T-shirt to wear to work because I needed to seem like I went home last night, I could always run into an American Apparel and grab whatever I needed. The store’s models and employees (who were, purportedly, also sometimes its models) radiated a ’70s-porno sexiness — stripey kneesocks, running shorts — that seemed somehow innocent. Founder Dov Charney was a grade-A perv, Claudine Ko’s 2004 profile had made clear, but the company’s labor practices were so much better than its competitors’ that we could still feel better about an AmAppy ringer tee than a Gap one.
Until, at last, we couldn’t. After much back and forth and a change in corporate parentage, the once ubiquitous retail stores all closed in 2017 after selling off their stock at increasingly discounted prices. I wish I’d bought more of it. The items I still have are threadbare but still soft and comfortable. My most treasured item is a red toddler hoodie sweatshirt that my younger son is about a month from outgrowing. I walked down North 6th recently and noticed that Everlane had opened a bricks and mortar location there, so that people can try on their sexless “elevated basics” before ordering them online.
I first set foot in an Avenue in 1999. I was 16.
I had recently visited a Gap with my mother, only to find that their largest jeans no longer fit me. In the fitting room, the thick, rigid waistband cut into my soft belly, leaving my waist with deep, red indentations that ached long after I changed. I was on the verge of womanhood and plus sizes, and this felt like a fitting, painful reminder of both. Those jeans were a hair shirt: a reminder of my sinful inadequacy, somehow manifested as such shameful abundance. I had been relegated to plus size stores.
When I stepped into Avenue, I slipped into grief. The racks were filled with clothing that looked more like something my evangelical aunt would wear than something I would buy as an aspiring riot girl. Polyester tops were printed with paisley, then tie dyed, then embossed with as many rhinestones as they would bear. Pants were baggy and tapered, somehow too big and too small all at once. I was already fat and queer, sticking out like a sore thumb amongst my thin, straight classmates. I just wanted to go unnoticed, and the clothing at Avenue wouldn’t allow me that.
But when I stepped into the dressing room, something extraordinary happened: the clothing fit. These were not the rigid and unforgiving jeans at the Gap. The material bent and swayed with my body, made room for me where I made none for myself. That day, I did myself the shameful, merciful favor of buying a pair of pants that fit comfortably.
I learned to alter the clothing I found there, sewing more fashionable straight legs into woefully shapeless pants, and roughly cutting studded necklines out of over-embellished T-shirts. Unlike other kids, I didn’t get to just have a style, I had to create it. Like so many fat kids before me, I learned to make the most of the two plus size stores in my town. And over time, I came to love Avenue like the embarrassing aunt it conjured. Not because it was mine, but because it was the only place that knew bodies like mine existed, and offered it the tender and simple kindness of clothing that fit.
As a middle and high school student in the 2000s, a slumber party meant a trip to Blockbuster. Picking out a movie was never just picking out a movie; it was a proving ground for adolescent friendships. Complex social dynamics were established and nurtured through dramatic readings from the backs of romantic comedies, bonding over childhood favorites, reminiscing over films seen together in theaters. Girls roamed the aisles in half-feral packs, shouting titles and blurbs at each other from across the store. With a true BFF, I could spend hours just deciding what to watch, scouring the new releases before adjourning to the real destination: the horror shelf.
Today, a girl like me would probably follow horror bloggers and get a Shudder subscription, but those things weren’t around when I was 13. Today, any kid with rudimentary computer skills can access a universe of inappropriate content, but my friends and I hoarded the knowledge that Blockbusters in town would let you rent an R-rated movie without an ID. Today, countless film bloggers help fans discover indie gems, but I relied on my friends’ recommendations and the random happenstance of whatever showed up on the Blockbuster shelves. I had never seen a trailer or read a review of Stir of Echoes or Ginger Snaps or May before I found them at Blockbuster, but those chance encounters fundamentally shaped the person I was becoming.
Like everyone else, I had more or less stopped patronizing Blockbuster well before the company filed for bankruptcy in 2010. Still, when I realized the location near me had been replaced by a T-Mobile store, it felt like a loss — the severing of yet another tie to my adolescence in a city being inexorably scraped and rebuilt. At least I’ll always have the DVDs I rented and “lost.”
Burlington, Vermont, is both very, very cold and very, very anti-consumerist. It is the only state without a McDonald’s in its capital; its first-ever Target opened in 2018. The frigidity of the war against big box stores is rivaled only by the temperature in January, which can often drop into the negative 20s.
Which means that if you were a teenager in Burlington in the mid 2000s and wanted to start dressing a little more adult — like, say, in a halter top with no back or a barely butt-covering bodycon dress for homecoming — you had very few options. Vermont had no Forever 21, no Wet Seal, not even an H&M. There was one store we did have, though: Charlotte Russe.
Located in the basement of the Burlington Square Mall, the Charlotte Russe was a beacon of a womanhood that was wildly foreign to me: Blaring hip-hop and welcoming shoppers with an army of slinky going-out tops draped on skinny-thick mannequins, it sold everything I’d seen on celebrities, but for $15. Bug-eyed sunglasses, peep toe stilettos, chandelier earrings, slouchy hobo bags, sequin tanks — and most memorably, the bin of thongs where my cool older friend first taught me how to steal — could now all be mine, much to the chagrin of my mother.
When Vermont’s anti-capitalist culture finally came for the Burlington Square Mall, Charlotte Russe was already gone. I’m glad that online shopping is more of a thing now, so that the teens of Vermont can just go to Asos or Fashion Nova for cheap clubwear. But it makes me sad that they’ll never have the feeling of looking at themselves in the Charlotte Russe dressing room, seeing themselves as grown-ups for the very first time.
— Rebecca Jennings, reporter for The Goods
Columbia Record House
I grew up obsessed with music. In grade school, I listened to the radio every morning and every night on a Nickelodeon-branded alarm clock. I watched hours and hours of MTV. I wrote the names of my favorite bands on my three-ring binder.
There was nothing more valuable to me than the few albums I owned. My most prized possessions were copies of Nirvana’s Nevermind and Green Day’s Dookie, both gifts. I had no money, but I wanted more.
Then, Columbia House offered me eight CDs for the price of one cent.
For a middle schooler with no disposable income, it was an irresistible opportunity — especially because it was notoriously easy to avoid paying the subsequent subscription fees. (Stephen Thompson of NPR called it “Baby’s First Mail Fraud.”) It’s clear that I was not alone. Jilting Columbia House for copies of Odelay, Tragic Kingdom, and Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness was a scam too sweet to pass up.
Columbia House filed for bankruptcy in 2015. It was alive for 60 years, beginning as the Columbia Record Club in 1955, but its heyday was the mid ’90s. According to Billboard, 15% of CDs sold in the US in 1994 were from mail-order record clubs.
In retrospect, what is most striking about Columbia House is that the company was ever successful. The idea that you’d comb through a paper catalog to order CDs through the mail sounds like a turducken of dying business models.
It makes sense when you realize that Columbia House itself was a bit of a scam. The business model, as intended, was to heavily mark up the cost of CDs and hope its customers forgot to unsubscribe. And of course, Columbia House itself was soon an afterthought, as a massive disruption for the music industry lurked just around the corner.
I only tried Columbia House once, but I’ve been paying Spotify or Netflix every month for this entire decade. I have on-demand access to more music and movies and television than I’ve ever had before, yet something about the Columbia House experience has been lost. Nothing today compares to the experience of getting those eight albums I coveted, all for the price of a penny.
— Renan Borelli, editor at The New York Times
In the fall of my senior year of high school, I bought my first pair of high heels: black lace-up oxford booties with a two-inch chunky heel. They were from Payless, a retailer that I primarily knew by its proximity to other, more interesting stores in the mall. The shoes couldn’t have cost more than $30, but at the time, they seemed infinitely adult.
I wore those heeled oxfords to homecoming, the first and last school dance I ever attended. I didn’t have a date; at 17, I was outwardly disdainful of things like boys and makeup, while still keenly aware of my unfamiliarity with both. Instead, I surrounded myself with AP classes, extracurriculars, and other bookish friends, like the ones I went to homecoming with. My real coming of age, I half believed, was just around the corner — I would bloom with ease into the kind of woman who wasn’t afraid to wear sleeveless dresses in public, whose words fell confidently from flawlessly lined lips, who strode with grace and strength in three-inch heels.
But the truth is, I teetered in those heeled oxfords, my ankles wobbly without my feet planted firmly on the ground. Following my friends’ cue, I slipped out of the shoes and placed them on the gym bleachers during the dance, and afterward wore them just a few more times before they collected scuff marks that I colored over with black Sharpie. The heels sat for years in the back of my closet, following me from high school to college to New York, where I finally threw them out a couple years ago. Not long after, in 2019, Payless filed for bankruptcy a second — and final — time and closed its 2,500 stores in the US. The chapter of my life in which I had attached so much hope and meaning to a pair of heels came to an end, and with it, my teenage conception of the kind of adult I wanted to be. Shedding that notion felt like giving up. Or maybe, grounded in reality, a bit more like relief.
— Jenny Zhang, reporter for Eater
My childhood was filled with books. My parents loved to read, and so I loved to read; we were regulars at two different libraries (our neighborhood St. Louis County branch and the Jewish Community Library), the local used bookstore (a perfect place to pick up installments of my favorite series by the dozen: the Baby-Sitters Club, the Boxcar Children), and our nearest outpost of books-and-music superstore Borders.
Though You’ve Got Mail — released in 1998, firmly in the midst of my most voracious tween reading period — taught me to hate the big bad book guys, I just couldn’t hate Borders. The abundance the store offered was too much of a thrill. My parents would take me and my little brother there a couple times a month, usually after dinner on a Saturday night, to see what was new. We would gather armloads of books and pore over our haul in the kids’ reading nook, ultimately landing on one or two to buy.
These outings were a way for my parents to encourage us to read, and also for us to spend time together as a young family. Predictably, as my brother and I grew up, our Borders trips were less frequent. Our lives got busier — school, sports, friends. We would still go every so often to pick up books for ourselves or books to give as presents, but it wasn’t just our age that slowed our Borders visits. It was, of course, the internet.
It turns out the biggest baddest book guy was not Borders nor Barnes & Noble, the real-world Fox Books, but rather Amazon. In 2011, Borders liquidated all 687 of its stores. Barnes & Noble took ownership of Borders’s customer list, but was itself forced to close 150 locations in the past decade; it was recently acquired by a hedge fund in an effort to stave off its own demise.
Libraries still exist. Independent bookstores still exist. Barnes & Noble still exists (for now!). But I can’t help feeling sad there’s one fewer place for kids to discover a new favorite author, or lose themselves in a familiar story, or just hang out with their families among a truly magnificent collection of books.
—Julia Rubin, editor of The Goods
When it came to retail destinations, my semi-rural Pennsylvania town didn’t have any teen-centric stores. The main place to shop, for consumers of all ages, was a mid-priced department store chain called Bon-Ton. It declared bankruptcy in 2018.
Our Bon-Ton was an everything store spread across two units of the town’s best shopping center. The store stocked mainly workhorse brands like Clinique, Maidenform, Pyrex, Aerosoles, Estee Lauder, and Corningware. (Ralph Lauren had its own special department with fancier fixtures and higher-pile carpet.) Everything was marked up, but only so it could later get marked down. Women would go there with their mothers or daughters to run made-up errands for pseudo luxuries. I don’t think I ever saw a man in the store, but over the years of shopping there, I probably saw every woman in town — every teacher, every neighbor, every mother of a friend — each on a quest for short-term fulfillment.
Our Bon-Ton encompassed many different fantasies, but was still small enough to contradict itself. One could go there in search of one’s first thong, and wind up bumping asses with the school guidance counselor, arms piled high with minimizer bras. The junior’s department stocked the kind of trendy rags that looked like bad, ersatz Abercrombie, but nonetheless came through in a pinch for teenagers under constant self-revision. The store was a lower-upper-middle class place in a town with zero class consciousness. More than once, I fell ill with “low blood sugar” and my mom had to run to the checkout line and bring me back to life with a Godiva chocolate bar.
Retail today is either super global or local in a stupid and rarified way. Bon-Ton occupied a perfect mid-point between the specificity of small town life and the cosmopolitan world that lay beyond it. Many years later, a reporting trip would bring me through another Pennsylvania town, where I’d wind up killing time at their Bon-Ton location. The fixtures were the same. The brands were all there. It was a Bon-Ton, but it was not mine.
— Jamie Lauren Keiles, writer
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Author: Alanna Okun