Then and now

The big news around here is, of course, that our once local independent book store, Borders, has filed for bankruptcy. They are closing 200 stores, including one of our three local stores. The online replacement for the old Ann Arbor Snooze has polled its readers on the biggest cause of the store’s long slide into bankruptcy. I don’t think there is a “biggest” cause. I think all of the options (except for coupons? what?) are factors. And some of the commenters (commentors?) had interesting things to say too. I had mixed feelings when Borders went big, I was skeptical about the partnership with Amazon, and I thought they fumbled on embracing e-reader technology. But I also think that e-reader technology is still in a wild wild west phase.

The first incarnation of Borders that I encountered was when I was in my 20s. That was the Jurassic Age! It was a two-story shop on State Street and was well known for its huge and comprehensive selection of books of all genres. Except for romance novels, that is. Not at Borders. The staff was extremely knowledgeable. If I have it right, a requirement for employment involved a lengthy literature test.

I have good memories of taking our kids there. I especially remember the GG wrapping up our first little newborn and taking her to Borders. I’m sure that the staff oohed and aahed at all the babies (future customers!) but, even in the 1980s in our relatively progressive city, they always seemed particularly impressed to see a dad, alone with his newborn baby, at the bookstore. Later on, that baby learned how to crawl up and down stairs on the carpeted stairs and I spent huge amounts of money on children’s books. Anyone need some? (Seriously!)

Borders began opening other stores and that flagship store that I remember so fondly moved a few doors down into the old Jacobson’s department store on Liberty. We were still regular customers. I still bought billions of books (anyone need some?) and they were now stocking stuffed aminals and puppets. The beach urchins were always hugely into fantasy play with puppets and things, so, yes, I bought billions of those too. Anyone need some?

I don’t buy as many books as I used to. The Landfill is *full* of books. I don’t have room for any more. And my loverly career doesn’t leave me with a lot of time and/or the right psychological energy to read for pleasure. We won’t talk about how high my stack of unread New Yorkers is right now.

As Borders expanded (and expanded and expanded and expanded), the customer service suffered a bit (in my opinion). I loved the original store, where you could go in and just kind of walk around and browse. If you wanted help, a *knowledgeable* person was always available. If you didn’t want help, they would leave you alone. A few years ago, my newly-graduated California kid (the afore-mentioned newborn) asked for books for Christmas. I was great at buying children’s books but wasn’t so sure what my sophisticated and widely-read daughter would be interested in (note: not romance novels). I went to Borders. Wouldn’t you know, some woman salesperson latched onto me. “Well, what was her major in college?”, she asked. I should have said, “Thanks but I don’t need help.” But social anxiety set in. “Theatre”, is what I replied. Oh… The woman started pointing out all kinds of theatre books. I knew that my daughter didn’t want a bunch of theatre-related books. She has always been a *reader* and she wanted big, thick, dense, *novels* to, well, *read*! Classic literature and modern literature and, well, stuff that might keep her occupied for more than an hour. Alas. The woman was not helpful *and* she wouldn’t leave me alone! And then there was the whole thing I witnessed last fall, where two rather non-literary-looking guys dudes ran by the table I was sitting at, passing a book back and forth like it was a football (it *was* a football Saturday). One said, “Dude, I’ve been a manager for like a week.” The other replied, “Dude, meeeee toooo.” Managers of what? The bathroom, maybe? Do you think Borders required them to take a test on literature for employment?

I love Borders. I want Borders to survive and that’s not only because people I care about work there. I hope that, in whatever restructuring follows the bankruptcy filing, that Borders will try to rediscover its roots. My wish is that Borders will run stores where the people who work there know about books. I dunno what to think about the e-reader business. I don’t think books will go away but I also think that e-readers are the future. So I think they should pursue that technology. Very shrewdly.

4 Responses to “Then and now”

  1. Margaret Says:

    I love Borders too; it was the first really cool bookstore in my town. However, I now mainly go there for coffee or to scope out books to order at the library. I order my book club books from amazon, which is our local company and way cheaper. I feel like a real hypocrite because I love the ambiance of a real bookstore, but prefer the ease of on-line. 🙁

  2. Dona Says:

    I didn’t know Borders started in Ann Arbor. My first encounter with Borders in 1993 when we visited friends in Rockville, MD (we lived in Alexandria, VA at the time). We were early and didn’t want to barge in on the friends so stopped at a Bookstore on Rockville Pike. It was the largest bookstore I’d been in and very cool inside. It moved across the street by the time we moved to Bethesda (just south of Rockville) and that’s where I bought my first Dan Bern CD. It’s final move was into a mall as an anchor store. I’ve not been there in a few years as I rarely frequent that mall.

  3. jane Says:

    The Rockville store (#10 although not the tenth store opened) will be closing.

    Borders has not used the ‘book test’ for many, many years, and I tell you it was quite hard, but opened the door for conversation in the interview, regardless of how many you got correct. I can get you a copy if you like — we were looking at it just 2 days ago.

  4. grandmothertrucker Says:

    Did you get Froggy at Borders?

    Save your books and puppets. Your children just still might have kids of their own someday ( you will cry trying to part with the sentimental ones ), and you will have to go buy all that crap all over again. You could offer it all up to a few nieces and nephews who are having kids. Julia loves books, and Susan too…. who else is having kids?