Within the Borders of Forty Years

A Narrative in Four Perspectives


By Melani M.

I grew up an hour and a half away from the original Borders bookstore, but it wasn’t until I heard the chain was being liquidated that I realized this; I hadn’t even known that the chain was founded in my home state. My grandparents lived next door to the manager of the Borders in my local mall and he is essential to any picture my mind forms of the chain. When the store closed, he left the state to find employment and I haven’t visited that mall since they both left.

The sorrow caused by Borders’s liquidation is still palpable in the residents of Ann Arbor Michigan where the store was founded forty years before. Members of the Facebook group “Borders Class of 2011 and Before” are still exchanging memories and experiences asking, “where are my peeps store #514?”  Many also shared in the sadness that in last season’s finale of “The Simpsons” Homer said “just like Borders I’ll always be there.” Some of those leaving comments admitted they cried. It’s been two years since the last store closed, but they still haven’t stopped 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 of inventory to work with. By 1974 the store had changed its location three times and occupied a two story building totaling 100,000 square feet; an unheard of amount of space for a bookstore at the time.

Though the brothers owned the store, it was Joe Gable, whom they hired as a manager, who really established the foundations for the Borders experience though his efforts 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.  He operated with the understanding that it was his responsibility to connect the customer to the right book.  You would not find instruments in a section of music books because in his words “he did not create museum displays” (3). They were a bookstore and customers should be able to see that by their stock.

Happy Employee

This was a drawing by a former Borders employee to show his happiness after being hired at the flagship store.

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 work specific sections.  Everyone was also required to clean the store and help with customer service, but according to one former employee, they loved to do it (Leoplod 3).  The environment led to several marriages between co-workers and many satisfied customers.


The Borders brothers expanded to a second store in the 1980’s.  When they sold the twenty one store chain to K-Mart in 1992, coffee and non-book items started to become regular additions to the inventory. In Ann Arbor, Borders patrons were expressing dissatisfaction with the switch from paper to plastic bags and many refused to enter the store again because it didn’t feel like Borders anymore. According to Gable, they tried to “take the book business which is complex and boring and make it simple and sexy” (Leopold 5).



By Jordan T.

I entered a Borders Bookstore for the first time when I was I was about nine years old. I went in for the purpose of finding a childrens dictionary that my teacher required us to have. And although Borders was not the bookstore I went to all the time, it’s a place that I remember very well. It is a place my father loved taking me to. In my experience, Borders was a place for families: a place for academic and personal needs.

What remains of Borders in Ann Arbor is the redesigned storefront: five compartmented spaces on the first floor, and the second floor is split into a business space and a University program (Greenberg).

The owners of the restaurants inhabiting the old Borders space are hoping that their food will attract people and boost the economy of Ann Arbor like Borders once did.

Borders catered to college kids in the area as well as the local community. The fact that the bookstore’s storefront has been broken up into five restaurants, a large business, and a University program seems to suggest that the college students aren’t necessary for the new businesses in town to thrive.

Borders had something for everyone and when the Flagship store in Ann Arbor closed down it devastated not only the Ann Arbor community, but also the business owners in the surrounding area. It has been reported that foot-traffic in the area has decreased significantly since its closure. Borders seemed to function as a hub for the town. “Thousands more people were on our sidewalks when Borders was open,” Susan Pollay said.  “It also brought a greater diversity of foot traffic: young and old, campus related and not, townies and visitors” (Lizzy Alfs). People have also said that when Borders closed it felt like losing a family member. This bookstore was not just a bookstore.


According to the demographic, Ann Arbor has a very large Asian population. As a result, many Asian restaurants line the streets of Ann Arbor and it only makes sense that another one, The Slurping Turtle, would appear in the old Borders storefront.

Screen Shot 2013-11-17 at 2.31.17 PMIn Parnassus on Wheels by Christopher Morely, Roger, the owner of Parnassus, loved bookselling. For him, bookselling was not a job so much as it was a way of life. He strived to bring the joy of reading into peoples’ lives, just as Borders did. 

Even though Borders didn’t just sell books, it was a place for people to buy entertainment. By selling entertainment they were selling happiness to many. Borders did their best to make it a place for people to enjoy themselves. They held events that made Borders a part of the community. It was a space for more than consumerism. People had a hard time letting go of Borders because of their emotional attachment to the store. People felt strongly about Borders because it was a part of their lives.

In Reluctant Capitalists the author states: “Independent booksellers […] claim that the chains’ standardized look is of a piece with their […] homogenous selection. And, it is charged, the impersonal, bland experience of shopping at a chain is alienating for customers and demeaning for books” (Miller 88). But for the people of Ann Arbor, this rings untrue. People loved Borders. The citizens of Ann Arbor did not see this Borders store as a part of a chain: they saw it as theirs. Borders had been a part of Ann Arbor for 40 years and the people who lived there […] grew attached to it (Lizzy Alfs). Those who spent their time in this Borders store saw it as secondary home for them. Borders was a part of Ann Arbor just as a small independent bookstore would be part of its town.


Space and Objects

By Stephanie H.


A panoramic shot of a typical Borders store

The Ann Arbor store began as a product of its local community when Tom and Louis Borders opened their used bookstore in 1971. It is easy to invent a picture of the two-room store above the LakeArt’s Supply with books lining the walls and either tables or more bookcases taking up the center area with other wares, space allowing. The early Borders locations have also been described as community centers, so there were probably chairs located in the space for customers to sit down and discuss their finds.

For the final Ann Arbor Borders I was unable to find a blueprint of the location and it is difficult to distinguish between photographs of the flagship and the hundreds of other Borders locations, but there is a description of the store included in Mary-Brook Todd’s A Place for Everything: Examining the Organization of Children’s Materials in Bookstores & Libraries. It is described 6114738313_24b1b5fb1e_oas being organized by subject and then broken down alphabetically by author or series, notated by signs above the sections to call attention from far away and within the isles to guide customers. The collection included Fiction in genres such as Science Fiction/Fantasy, Historical Fiction, and Mystery Thrillers as well as Non-Fiction such as Art, Music, Cooking, and General Science. Though both were represented the non-fiction options were limited, implying that there was a greater focus on entertainment reading. Popular series were given specialty displays, while books covering controversial issues were grouped into “Family Issues” or placed in an entirely different room labeled “Teaching Reference”. The other major distinctions made for collections were the children’s literature and the multimedia, which were grouped together and separated from the rest of the store (Todd). While the factual description of the store is useful, it is Todd’s commentary under “Key Findings” which truly pique my interest.

The item on the Key Findings list that most caught my attention was the comment “Organization not based on community needs or demographics” (Todd). I wish she had spent time to expand this observation, because it is my assessment that this is the major divide between chain stores and independents and could be used to pinpoint the moment Borders no longer “belonged” to the Ann Arbor community. Limited by the master plan for all of the chain stores, the Ann Arbor Borders was forced to become less connected with the community that had created it and more standardized with what the Borders Group wanted the chain to become as a whole.

While the standardization as studied by Laura J. Miller in her book Reluctant Capitalists is often criticized as being bland or impersonal, as seen in Borders it also offered an opportunity to streamline the book shopping experience, which has been at the top of consumer demands for years (Miller, 88). As Miller explains, the chain no longer cared to be seen as “high-brow”, instead moving towards a modern look that would attract a wide array of customers once they transitioned into suburban malls. In particular, they focused on bright colors, contemporary materials, bold signs, and better lighting (Miller, 92).  All of these traits became iconic in Borders stores around the globe, the basic ingredients, and were what worked together to create uniformity no matter the size or shape of the building. This concept is shown below in my mock-floor plan of a typical Borders bookstore. I created it by studying photos of various locations and pulling out some of the persistent themes such as the furniture and color pallets. This technique was chosen over mapping out a particular store in order to highlight how similar all of the locations truly are.


We return again to Christopher Morley and his enigmatic “Professor”. In Parnassus on Wheels Parnassus is a wagon that contains more than one might assume, it is a bookstore and it is a home. Regardless of where it is, the moment you enter it you are taken far away. Through the stark separation between what is inside the space and what surrounds it, Parnassus becomes a sort of liminal space. With all the isolating qualities of the standardized chain stores, the fact that you can enter a store in Pennsylvania only to travel across the country and enter another of the same name in California and feel as if you’ve returned to the original evokes that same sense of liminality. The stores within a chain, with all of their carefully chosen swatches and shelving, form a network and a community that cannot be contained by a single town. While one might mourn the loss of a personal connection between a town and its book provider, it’s hard to deny the appeal of always feeling like you can escape to your favorite bookstore, no matter where you are.

Cultural Function and Literature Definition

By Chelsy B.

Borders started out as a small college town second hand bookshop. However, Tom and Louis Borders did not allow the college setting to define their inventory. The Borders brothers went beyond the academia, specifically pushing their focus away from textbooks, and reached out to a larger community.

In 2004, Borders reached an agreement with the Starbucks subsidiary, Seattle’s Best Coffee to operate cafes in its domestic superstores under the Seattle’s Best brand name.

Seattle’s Best Coffee Cafe in Borders of Santa Barbara, CA.

This allowed Borders to become a space for which books, coffee, and food were all accessible. There were now tables and chairs and a space where conversations could be held. In other bookstores, independent or chain, I feel as though there is still a library-like reverence for quietness. Borders physically created a separated space within its walls to promote discussion. There is literally a line drawn between the two parts of the store, as seen in the different flooring of this Santa Barbara Borders. This distinction allows for a place within the bookstore to facilitate discussion.

This is reminiscent of Habermas’ idea of the public sphere. Jürgen Habermas’s concept of the public sphere is a realm within social life in which public opinion can be formed and which is accessible to all. The engagement within the public sphere according to Habermas is blind to class positions and the connections between activists in the public sphere are formed through a mutual will to take part in matters that have a general interest.

The image Borders wanted to portray to its customers is a welcome space for the sharing of ideas and interests. The space itself becomes the moderator in its broad collection, unbiased in its large inventory. It is also a place for discovering new ideas. Therefore Borders configuration of ‘literature’ is works that bring people into a discussion with the text(s) and one another. Literature is for people, it is not defined by any specific genres or limited to any niche interests. It has a diverse openness quality that is unique to the Borders experience. Ultimately, instead of the book finding the person, it is about the people finding the book.

New Paperbacks Table Borders in Madison Square Garden

However, outside of that ideal into actuality, Borders focus of literature rarely strayed beyond the bestsellers. The bestsellers were the focus of the store, shown to the customers through windows and the first tables and shelves within the store itself. The largest section in the store was dedicated to fiction and all other sections were pushed off into back corners and behind tables of novelty items. In those sections, it was difficult to tell what was quality because everything was in the publishers bought space. There was only a few handwriting recommendations on books in various sections but read like something taken off of an Amazon review. It felt artificial and there was no sense of the personal in this bookstore when I believe book selection is one of the most experiences a true reader could ever have.

I didn’t visit the Borders in my hometown often because my experience was always the same. It was a very confusing space to navigate. Trying to trek towards the actual books, I would get stuck between the music/DVD section and the Seattle’s Best café. I would pass by people setting their coffee cups on the books stacked on the ‘New Paperback’ table while looking at their new DVD or CD. This happened too frequently and I wanted my experience to be dedicated to search the stacks for a hidden gem or seeking out a novel by a specific author. I found that I could not trust a bookstore that had customers that disrespected the physical book and the space of a bookstore as a whole.



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http://www.michigandaily.com/news/former-borders-books-building-have-several-new-tenants (greenberg)

http://www.annarbor.com/business-review/one-year-later-borders-closure-leaves-its-mark-on-downtown-ann-arbor-retail-environment/ (Alfs)

http://www.annarbor.com/business-review/well-known-chef-bringing-slurping-turtle-noodle-house-to-ex-borders-building-in-downtown-ann-arbor/ (Freed)



“Borders Class of 2011 and before.” Borders Class of 2011 and before. Facebook, n.d. Web. 20 Oct. 2013. https://www.facebook.com/groups/229620883744332/

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.

Miller, Laura J. Reluctant Capitalists: Bookselling and the Culture of Consumption. Chicago: University of Chicago, 2006.

Morley, Christopher. Parnassus on Wheels. Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1955. Print.

Todd, Mary-Brook. A Place for Everything: Examining the Organization of Children’s Materials in Bookstores & Libraries. The School of Information. University of Michigan, n.d. Web.


Bomey, Nathan R. N.d. Photograph. Ann Arbor. Borders’ Rise and Fall: A Timeline of the Bookstore Chain’s 40-year History. Ann Arbor News. Web. http://www.annarbor.com/business-review/borders-rise-and-fall-a-timeline-of-the-bookstore-chains-40-year-history/.

Bowen, Ross. 2012. Photograph. 14 Nov. 2012. Web. 30 Sept. 2013. http://www.ashvegas.com/russ-bowen-of-wlos-kmart-confirms-tunnel-road-location-closing.

Constant, Paul. “Books without Borders My Life at the World’s Dumbest Bookstore Chain.” Portland Mercury, 1 Sept. 2011. Web. 03 Dec. 2013. http://www.portlandmercury.com/portland/books-without-borders/Content?oid=4613534.

Hollister, Sean. N.d. Photograph. Borders’ Kobo EReader Available for Pre-order, Ships June 17th. Web. 30 Sept. 2013.

Linder, Brad. Borders Launches New Amazon-free Web Store. 2008. Photograph. Huffpost Tech, 28 May 2008. Web. 30 Sept. 2013. http://downloadsquad.switched.com/2008/05/28/borders-launches-new-amazon-free-web-store/.

Steiner, Robert J. Popular Holdings Singapore. 2008. Photograph. Singapore. Web. 30 Sept. 2013. <http://www.streetdirectory.com/stock_images/travel/normal_show/12101451200320/119363/popular_holdings_signage/.


Panoramic of store – Space and Objects


 Genre signs – Space and Objects