Loss of a Bookstore: Aftermath
Borders has been closed for two years now, but that is still hard for some former employees of the bookstore chain to accept. Members of the Facebook group Borders class of 2011 and before are still exchanging memories, and experiences asking “where are my peeps store #514?” and sharing in the sadness that in the last season finale of “The Simpsons” Homer joked “just like Borders I’ll always be there.” Some commenters admitted they cried and the sorrow caused by Borders liquidation is still palpable in the residents of Ann Arbor Michigan where the store was founded forty years before. The city has tried to move on by leasing the space to restaurants and a CVS to lessen the blow caused by the loss of Borders but the people are still grieving that something once so great had to die.
When the Borders brothers first opened their used bookshop at 211 South State Street in 1971 they had eight hundred square feet and five hundred dollars’ worth of inventory to work with. Thanks to the system devised by Louis Borders which allowed them to keep track of their stock in the days before bar codes, business flourished. The protagonist of Christopher Morley’s novel Parnassus on Wheels expressed her excitement by saying that owning a mobile bookstore was “like going to college” (24) The experience for the Borders brothers was a lot to handle considering that both were trying to finish their studies at the University of Michigan. By 1974 the store had changed its location three times and now occupied a two story building totaling 100,000 square feet. That was an unheard of amount of space for a bookstore at that time.
Though the brothers owned the store, it was Joe Gable, whom they hired to manage the store, who really established the foundations of the Borders experience while he sought to “make it the best bookstore in America” (Leopold 2). Before the inventory got too large to allow him to do so, Gable would personally unpack each shipment, stock the shelves and arrange the displays. The format he employed influenced all future Borders stores. He insisted that all arrangements have numerous copies of each title but only one copy would be displayed face out. The table at the front of the store featured as many bestsellers as little known titles especially university press publications. The store was close to five state colleges in one of the best read cities in the country so Gable upheld that even if a title only sold one copy in a year, it was still important to carry it because it gave credibility to the store’s selection. He operated with the understanding that it was his responsibility to connect the customer to the right book and he was adamant that books be the merchandise handled. You would not find instruments in a section of music books because in his words “he did not create museum displays” (Leopold 3).
Gable also took pains to make sure he had well informed staff. As Archibald MacLeish says in “Free Man’s Books” “True books are sold by the enthusiasm of those who love them “because they persuade readers to talk” (13). Often the books recommended by staff members sold more than the national bestsellers. In order to work at borders applicants had to pass a qualifying test to show their literary knowledge (which I admit I failed with only one correct answer) and were assigned to specific sections. Everyone was required to clean the store and help with customer service but according to one employee they loved to do it. ” The store didn’t have the luxery an elevator so all of the books had to be carried up from the basement that served as the receiving room but even then it didn’t feel like work. This environment led to several marriages between co-workers and many satisfied customers.
The Borders brothers decided to expand to a second store in the 1980s after scoping out a location in metro Detroit for over a year. Looking in retrospect however, many employees of the original store believe that this was the first step in the store’s demise. The second store lacked the intellectual atmosphere of the Ann Arbor location that had arisen from its close proximity to several universities and the anti-war protests of the previous decade. With each store that followed, the sense that the customer could call a Borders “their” store started to disappear. Coffee and non-book items started to become regular items of inventory when the Borders brothers sold the chain to K-Mart which had built up to twenty one stores in 1992.
For a time this helped Borders increase sales but at the cost of destroying unique features of the chain and making it a replica of its competitors. Though the store boasted 100,000 titles, half of which were standard for each of the stores and half which were chosen to cater to the location of the place, that didn’t mean a customer would be able to find an employee that could locate what they wanted. The stores no longer provided the sense of comfort they once did because according to Gable, they tried to “take the book business which is complex and boring and make it simple and sexy” (Leopold 5). While back in Ann Arbor Borders patrons were expressing dissatisfaction with the switch from paper to plastic bags.
After another decade when store number one was infected by the idea that the superstore concept would save the chain that had not turned a profit the last few years, many loyal customers refused to enter the store again preferring to remember the good times prior to the financial struggles. It didn’t look like Borders at all anymore. Though Borders is gone it has established an indelible impression on Ann Arbor residents fostering a love of reading that can sustain the operation of the nineteen independent bookstores that grew up in Borders shadow.
Bacon, John U. “Good-bye, Borders.” Michigan Today. University of Michigan, 8 Sept. 2011. Web. 26 Sept. 2013. <http://michigantoday.umich.edu/2011/09/story.php?id=8033>.
Bomey, Nathan. “Borders’ Rise and Fall: A Timeline of the Bookstore Chain’s 40-year History.” The Ann Arbor News. AnnArbor.com, 18 July 2011. Web. 27 Sept. 2013. <http://www.annarbor.com/business-review/borders-rise-and-fall-a-timeline-of-the-bookstore-chains-40-year-history/>.
Leopold, Todd. “The Death and Life of a Great American Bookstore.” CNN. Cable News Network, 12 Sept. 2011. Web. 24 Sept. 2013. <http://www.cnn.com/2011/US/09/12/first.borders.bookstore.closing/index.html>.
MacLeish, Archibald, and Franklin D. Roosevelt. A Free Man’s Books: An Address ; Delivered at the Annual Banquet of the American Booksellers Association. Mount Vernon [u.a.: Peter Pauper, 1942. Print.
Morley, Christopher. Parnassus on Wheels;. Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1955. Print.
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