The Long Good-Bye to Borders

This post is part reminisance, part frustrated vent, and part confession.

Probably all of you know that Borders Books declared bankruptcy this week.  I’m an author and bibliophile in Ann Arbor, and believe me, it’s about all we’ve been talking about around here.

It’s a sad, sad, thing, and it was a long, painful time coming.

Now me, I have history with Borders. When I was a kid, I grew up in a white-flight suburb in the area outside of Detroit known as Downriver.  There was one small bookstore in town, and it was an hour bike ride away.  The library was closer, but still pretty small.  Then, one day, I got to go with a friend to Ann Arbor, and to Borders.  This was back in the day when there was only one Borders.  To me, it looked huge.  Massive.  A palace of books.  Two whole stories of them with a narrow escalator running between the floors.  To be hired there, I learned, you had to take a test to show how much you knew about literature.  There were no videos (we were still in the days of the VHS/Beta wars), no music, no kitch.  There was nothing but shelf after shelf, aisle after aisle, of books.

At fourteen, already determined to be a writer, I had entered Nirvana.

Unfortunately, Ann Arbor was even harder to get to than the local bookstore, even after I had my own drivers liscence, so it wasn’t until I got to college, in Ann Arbor, that Borders became a daily part of my life.  This was about the time when things started to change.   Borders had already started to grow into the Great Chain and over the next two decades, it just kept growing.  The Jacobson’s department store closed and Borders took over its space, but there were fewer books, and more music, and videos and later DVDs.  Kitch was introduced, and out in the wider world, Borders — my Borders, my Nirvanah of books — was putting independent stores out of business and introducing the term “death spiral” into the lives of authors by introducing the computerized inventory system that would change the way books are tracked and stocked.

When they sold out to KMart, I knew the end was going to show up eventually.  I didn’t mind so much that they sold out.  They’d done that years ago.  I recognized that for all I could never quite shed a sentimental attachment to them.  But KMart?  I went around saying “Gang, if you’re going to sell out, at least sell out to somebody viable.”

There are days I hate being right.

Unfortunately, that was not the last thing that went wrong for Borders.  An endless parade of CEOs meant no retail approach stuck around long enough for anybody to find out if it was viable.  Database management became something any Mom and Pop shop could put in place, so they lost their inventory-stocking edge.  Then came Amazon, and they tried to sell out their online business to Amazon, and  WHOA! Amazon turned out not to want to promote Borders stores.  Who could have seen THAT coming?  So they had to fight to get their online store back from Amazon, and by then it was too late.  Their online lunch had been eaten, in plenty of time for the ebook revolution to come knocking on the door.

So, this week, the current management team declared bankruptcy, except they haven’t filed a complete plan or budget explaining what they’re going to do with the money they swear they’ve got to see them through the restructuring.  Their excuse was they rushed it because they want to be able to start closing the stores in time for the President’s Day sales.  Somehow, this is not a motive or a course of reasoning that is filling me with confidence. Frankly, this is not looking good, at all, and the ripples through the publishing and professional writing communities are going to be a slow, long and painful as they are going to be for the readers.

So, that’s the reminisence, and the frustrated vent.  Here comes the confession.

I’m a book vulture.  I always have been.  It’s not savory, I’m not proud of it, but it’s true.  When there was a remaindered bookstore down on Main, I went.  A lot.  When Shaman Drum, a beautiful independent bookstore on State where I routinely went to find obscure research books closed down, I went and filled my arms with books I’d never find anywhere else, aching for the fact that I was picking over bones and doing it anyway.

Today, I took my son to the local closing Borders, and did it again.  In a line that snaked all the way around the store, I inched my stack of books along in front of me (I had too many to carry and the baskets had all been taken) for two hours, talking to my fellow shoppers about the irony of the store being full to the gills now that it was closing, and what on earth were we all thinking with our arms, and bags, and shopping trolleys filled, when they weren’t taking that much off.  Only 20%.  I don’t do this for anything else.  I don’t do after Turkey Day or after Christmas sales.  I boggle at people who crowd in front of WalMarts at 3am.  But close a bookstore, and I’m right there.

Good-bye Borders.  Rest in Peace.  What are we going to do now?

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The Long Good-Bye to Borders — 5 Comments

  1. The last Kander & Ebb musical was THE SCOTTSBORO BOYS. It closed after the New Year on Broadway. The minute the closing was announced, the wail went up: How can you do this? Such a historical show! And the last Kander and Ebb, my god! To which the only reply could be: where were you when we needed you in the seats?

  2. Sarah told you where we were. We were across the street at Shaman Drum, the store that became what Borders was in its glory days. Independent, chock full of intellectual fair, wall to wall books with no kitsch, music, or videos. The people who gave Borders a name, left it long ago when they sold out and removed all of the free, locally published newspapers from their entryways, which they used to display proudly as a member of our community. We’ve all just been waiting for the end since then with bittersweet memories.

  3. I tried to be a book vulture too, today, even though I felt horrible about it, but when I saw the line… I fled. I wanted to give them my business, but the 20% discount was not worth the pain of standing in that line. I’ll still buy the books I was going to buy there. I’ll just do it somewhere else.

  4. See, Barnes and Ignoble was my big bookstore. I didn’t really encounter Borders until we moved west. And while B&N had its share of gawdawful non-book merchandise, there was still a “bookishness” to the place that felt familiar and comforting.

    What I miss (and this dates me as Very Old) is spinner racks. When we moved from NYC to rural Massachusetts, my source of books was the drug store, which had two spinner racks whose stock changed monthly. I didn’t know then, but know now, that those racks contained a publisher’s full paperback list: the one or two leads for the month, plus mid-list SF, romance, westerns. Going to the drug store and going through those racks systematically (flipping through each stack of books because they often got out of order and you might miss something) I got introduced to writers the library wouldn’t have shown me (because I wouldn’t have known to look at them) and genres I might have ignored.

    For a while, Borders and B&N were like that: making it possible to wander the shelves, stumbling into new work, feeling an electric charge of possibility just going in the place because, Hey, this is where Books live.

    K-Mart. Oy.

  5. My first Borders experience was visiting one out of town in college, I was in heaven to find a store that actually stocked foreign language reading books, instead of learn to speak x language. I came home with a stack of books. It was sad when they stopped stocking the wide variety that made it worth going in the first place.

    As more bookstores close, I find I miss browsing the most. I used to find new authors that way.