Store Loss and Disenfranchised Grief

I stood with my head pressed against the glass. Behind it, a thoroughly empty shop, long and narrow. The bald fact of it: walls, carpet, back door. Everything else – the shelves, the posters, the old counter at the back with its pale pink curtain into the inner sanctum that held the DVDs – all gone. The closing down signs still mocking the windows, a picture of understatement.

How absurd, to get upset about a video store closing! How old was I? Well, it was early January, which is always a disorientating time for me. And this was a local video store, not a franchise, owned by a sweet family headed by a short, white-haired middle-aged woman who always treated me with kindness and courtesy. This family were already installed in the store when I started to use it after returning, ten years ago, to live in the nearby suburb where I grew up.

It was a damn good video store, with plenty of stock to choose from. It charged only $3 for new releases, obviously an attempt to compete with the DVD vending machines that had become a fixture at supermarkets in recent years.

It had no pretensions to being an arty place aimed at cinephiles – I used to think how much more it could do to capitalise on the hordes of students in the area – but the owner had realised, she told me once, that keeping a back catalogue of videos rather than selling most of them off was good for the business, tiding it over whenever the crop of new releases was particularly disappointing.

My angst came from several sources. I hadn’t had the chance to say goodbye and thanks for being real, and independent, and genuinely friendly. Mixed in with this was the frustration of human curiosity – I’d missed the inside story. I’ll never know whether the owner had simply had enough and was retiring with a nice little nest egg, or, much more likely, was a victim of the switch to vending machines along with the rise of Quickflix and internet streaming – and perhaps rising store rents.

But it wasn’t just the owner I’d lost the chance to say goodbye to. It was the shop itself, its familiar layout, the time I used to spend painstakingly choosing my five weeklys for only $6.50. I’ve used those DVD vending machines, but it’s just not the same. Going out to choose a video is still a treat for me, and having a machine dispensing it takes all the fun away.

The small losses of daily life

As we get older, familiar places seem to become more important. There is so much change, and yet another small adjustment can sometimes seem like a blow.

Gerontologist Professor Kenneth Doka has an expression for the sense of loss that we have trouble letting go of because our grief is not socially sanctioned – he calls it disenfranchised grieving.

Such losses are often large but they can also be small ones. Life is full of them – every new stage we enter results in the shedding of old routines, places and companions – but modern life changes so fast that we may be in a state of constant adjustment, never having the chance to find our feet until the next earth tremor of change.

Pic: Grove Arcade bookstore, by Joel Kramer
Shops are commercial ventures, but the ones we visit regularly become part of our psychic maps, our mental touchstones. I hadn’t expected to feel bereft when the Borders store at my local shopping mall closed. This occurred when the entire Australian arm of the business went into receivership in 2011. All over Melbourne Borders stores were holding closing down sales and I joined the swarms of bargain hunters combing the fast-emptying shelves for books going for a couple of dollars.

I wasn’t prepared for the sense of loss once the Chadstone Borders at closed. I knew that it was a heartless multinational, had read somewhere that workers in its US stores were so poorly paid they had to get second jobs to survive. Nevertheless there was something profoundly civilising about all those books in my local shopping mall. I’ve always fetishised books and it was the sheer number at the Borders store with its two floors that captivated me.

Still, losses have their consolations. About a year ago a new independent bookstore moved into Chadstone, with genre labels that look a bit home made, and a refusal to grant the kinds of massive discounts that stores like Borders and Dymocks have relied on. It’s a new branch of the independent chain Robinsons Books, and seems so far to be well patronised – long may it reign!

Have you ever experienced a sense of unexpected loss when a familiar store closed down?

Until next time!

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