For many communities, the closure of Borders means one fewer place to read books, hear music and drink coffee. For downtown Silver Spring, whose branch anchors the redeveloped area around Ellsworth Drive, Borders was one of the neighborhood's few nightlife options. That's especially relevant right now as residents discuss imposing a curfew on Montgomery County youth due to fears of late-night crime.
Like many of Borders' other locations outside of shopping malls, the Silver Spring Borders was open until 10pm during the week and 11pm on weekends. In many of the suburban communities where these stores were located, it may have been the only place open that late. In downtown Silver Spring, where you can count the number of bars on two hands, Borders gave people another place to go, making the streets livelier and safer.
Borders didn't just function as a bookstore. It's what sociologist Ray Oldenburg would call a "third place," a sort of gathering space like bars or coffeehouses where people can go solely to socialize. In downtown Silver Spring, Borders stood in for other "third places" like mega-coffeehouse Mayorga, which closed two years ago. On top of that, the store drew people in from Ellsworth Drive seeking something to do between other activities, like shopping or watching a movie. It's likely that the symbiotic relationship between Borders and the rest of downtown Silver Spring helped it weather the first round of store closings.
Last week, while writing about Montgomery County's proposed teen curfew, I was criticized for suggesting that the county provide more activities for young people at night. Many commenters here rightly pointed out that troublemakers aren't going to be deterred by a Battle of the Bands down at the teen center. That's true, but potential criminals will be scared off by seeing more people of all ages out in downtown Silver Spring doing legal, socially acceptable things. After all, if you're going to commit a crime, you want as few witnesses as possible.
The discussion over unruly youth in downtown Silver Spring has been going on for years, and back in 2007 I advised people who are fed up with it to keep spending time and money in the area. But people need places to spend their time and money, and the loss of Borders means there's one fewer reason for them to visit downtown Silver Spring. The Peterson Companies, which owns the Downtown Silver Spring complex at Ellsworth Drive and Fenton Street, could fill the Borders space with any store, but they'd do well to find tenants that stay open late, keeping the area busy at night.
Borders in downtown Silver Spring during store liquidation.
The prevailing mindset among many community leaders in Silver Spring is that more nightlife means more crime. During a discussion about the proposed curfew on the Kojo Nnamdi Show last week, civic activist Tony Hausner argued that the 2,000-seat Fillmore music hall, which opens in September, will bring gangs to the area. (Yeah, because members of MS-13 love Cheap Trick.)
But the venue can only make downtown Silver Spring safer, because on a given night it'll bring 2,000 additional people to the area. Even if some concertgoers might be noisy or a little intoxicated, they serve as 2,000 additional pairs of "eyes on the street" to see what's going on and deter potential criminals.
The current discussion over a teen curfew for Montgomery County revolves around what young people do late at night and whether they should be at home. But the curfew was proposed to deal with crime, and should be judged on those merits. In downtown Silver Spring, where the county has spent decades trying to create a lively urban district, the best way to deal with crime is not to send law-abiding young people home but, rather, to ensure that more law-abiding people of all ages are out.
To do that, we need to have activities in the area throughout the day and into the night. The success of Borders shows that they don't have to involve alcohol or loud music. But they should give people lots of reasons, and lots of different reasons, to spend their time and money in downtown Silver Spring.