Borders: Moving Through Space and Time
As any good college town, Selinsgrove is home to its very own used and rare bookstore. During store hours, D.J. Ernst attracts a casual walker with its outdoor display of 50₵ paperbacks, an opportunity no truly bookish person can pass up. Standing on the front stoop you are pulled further by the scent of paper and glue, and upon entering you are rewarded by an amount of books you could not previously of imagined standing outside the small, one room store. The walls are lined with shelves, more 50₵ treasures are stacked on the edges of the floor, and in the center of the space sits a display of collectables and hardbacks, as well as a few back issues of Best American collections. Whenever the store is open you can be certain to find Homer, the owner, sitting behind the counter in the back, often either reading one of the books surrounding him or carefully gluing some loose bindings. When you ask him about his store he will be quick to admit it’s often a struggle, but the love of it all is what brings him to work each morning. He knows his stock better than any high-school aged part-time employee at the Books-a-Million in the mall down the street, and is always able to shepherd the university students that have made the short trek down to his store to the books they need.
As you peruse the wares, it’s hard not to think about the differences and, sometimes even more importantly, the similarities between this place and the chain bookstores. At face value it seems almost impossible to bridge the gab between these two types of shopping experiences, but as seen by the Borders Group this relationship can be much closer than one might expect. I’ll let you decide on the relevancy of the fact that Borders closed its doors in September or 2011, but we’re getting ahead of ourselves already.
In 1971 Tom and Louis Borders opened the first Borders bookstore in Ann Arbor,
Michigan while they were undergraduates at the University of Michigan. It was a small,two-room second hand shop located above 209 State Street that probably held a similar air as D.J. Ernst in Selinsgrove, but by 1975 they bought out another local store. Wahr’s had been operating for 80 years, specializing mostly in textbooks and school supplies,an important asset to universities in the area. This store was located at 316 South Main Street, and in order to assist with managing this expansion the brothers brought in Michael Hildebrand and Harvey James Robin. No longer focused on simply one small location and their inventory more than doubled, keeping track of all the books was no longer something that could mainly be managed mentally. Louis developed the store’s own custom inventorying and sales projection system, which they began selling to regional independent bookstores across the nation in 1976.
View Borders History in a larger map, modern storefront of the original Borders Location
Over the following thirteen years Borders continued to expand, opening new locations in places such as Atlanta and Indianapolis, with the next major development of the company in 1985 when they opened their first superstore, which now included a coffee bar and was a symbol for all future Borders bookstores. In 1989 they hired Robert F. DiRomualdo. Formerly the president of Hickory Farms, DiRomualdo was a Harvard MBA with retail experience, and would go on to be very successful in his leadership of the company over the next three years until the company was bought out by Kmart and merged with Waldenbooks. This buyout can be seen as a major turning point in the company’s history, and quite possibly the beginning of the end, even though the store would continue to expand and make a profit for more than another decade. While the company was still run out of Ann Arbor, it was no longer the independent, homegrown entity that proudly traced all twenty-one of its stores to the humble beginnings of a second-hand shop. As brought up in my previous post regarding Ann Arbor as it is today and the impact Borders left on the city, Tim Cresswell is a human geographer who has worked to define “place” and everything it implies. One of the key parts of his definition is the idea of ownership, and when Kmart bought out and merged Borders this founding sense of ownership was lost (Cresswell, 1). While the Borders name eventually beat out Waldenbooks upon the creation of Borders Group, Inc. many of the chairmen for Borders left the company following the merger.
Kmart bought the chain in hopes of solving its own dilemmas in the book market and even opened a new flagship in Ann Arbor in 1994, but when that goal was unsuccessful the Borders Group (BGP) was formed in 1995 with an initial public offering, further removing the chain from its history and identity as a family owned company. While greater distance was created between the current form of the chain and its conception, the Border Group actually went through a few years of marked success. The first international store was opened in 1997 in Singapore and the international presence of the company explodes from there with the first Borders Group subsidiary created the following year in the United Kingdom. The Borders (UK) Ltd. grows to become one of the leading booksellers in the country as Borders continues to expand into other territories, launching its first website in May of 1998.
Unlike many of the company’s expansions, its foray into the web is criticized as being behind the times, and is often pointed to as the major cause of the company’s eventual liquidation. With the continued growth of physical locations and the lack of success on the online platform, the website began to become a distraction from the brick and mortar stores, which lead to the Borders Group outsourcing their web presence to the now flourishing Amazon company in 2001. The company continues to try and grow beyond its means by branding with Seattle’s Best Coffee in all of the superstores in 2004 and then starting to franchise internationally in April of 2005, starting with the Berjaya Books Sdn. Bhd. in Malaysia.
With stocks dropping and profits refusing the rise, the Borders Group tried to refocus on their customer base by implementing a Borders Rewards system in February of 2006. Unlike Barnes & Noble’s membership program, Borders Rewards was offered free of charge to all customers and aimed at rewarding loyalty through a point system, which could then be exchanged for store credit or discounts. The move turned out to be too little to late, since by the end of 2006 the company profits dropped to zero. The Borders Group continued to try and regain its footing in 2008 by opening digital centers in fourteen concept stores nationwide in 2008 and finally moved into the eBook market in 2010 as a partnership with Kobo, Inc. but the efforts continued to be futile. The company had exerted so much effort in expansion it was unable to keep its competitive edge, eventually leading to the final closings of Borders stores in the United States on September 18th, 2011. While some franchises continue to operate today in the Middle East, the Borders Group was liquidated and sold its trademarks and costumer lists to Barnes & Noble. While the website continued to function as a directory for a month following the closure of the physical stores, the url was redirected to the Barnes & Noble page on October 14th, 2011.
Over the span of forty years Borders went from a small idea shared by brother during their undergraduate careers, a local landmark, to an international company that at its peak was grossing $3.27 billion in sales. In its attempt to compete with the Barnes & Noble megastore it lost what had lead to its early success, the innovation of two men who had a passion for bookselling. I’m not going to deny it’s a very, perhaps even overly, romantic view of a world of commerce and number-crunching, but when wandering D.J. Ernst or any other second-hand store it’s impossible to deny the immediate sense of dedication to the art. It has a personality, not only a physical presence but also the “spiritual genealogy” Christopher Morley discusses in his essay, “Escaped Into Print”. He discusses the interconnectedness of books and the people who not only write them but also consume them, the connections built within a community that cannot be limited to a single geographical area (64). When Borders made that shift from a corner piece of life in Ann Arbor, a space for students and residents alike to come and experience literature, to the Border Group it cuts the majority of its ties to the people living in literary community.
Of course many of those living in Ann Arbor continued to feel bonded to the storefront and still feel its absence today, it stopped being the community member they saw it as back in 1992 when Kmart first bought the name. Morley continues to discuss the romantic ideals of literature through his novel, Parnassus on Wheels, by introducing the characters of Roger the bookseller and his travelling store, Parnassus. As seen over the course of this novel, no matter how marvelous Parnassus looks as a physical object, it is Roger and his passion that gives the wagon its sense of “place”. When Roger leaves and our narrator, Helen, is on her own the adventure does not seem as grand (108). He was the life-force of the store, much as the Borders brothers were for their early stores. Once the company was packaged and shipped out across the nation it lost all hope of staying successful or even relevant to the literary community, each step further into the world taking it twice as far from its identity and its true place.
Maps embedded from Google
Timeline embedded from Dipity
Creswell, Tim. “Defining Place.” Place: A Short Introduction. New York City: John Wiley & Sons, 2013. Print.
Morley, Christopher. Parnassus on Wheels. New York: Avon Books, 1983.
______. “Escaped Into Print,” in Ex Libris Carissimis. New York: A.S. Barnes, 1961.