It’s tough for any free-lance writer to make a living—but it was a lot easier with a friendly bookstore on your side, helping you from start to finish. It wasn’t that long ago that if you wanted to buy a book, there was no Kindle or Nook or amazon.com—or internet, for that matter. There weren’t even big book chains. You had to go to one of those narrow stores in mini-malls that sold an equally narrow selection of paperback best-sellers and thrillers and romance novels. But then Tom and Louis Borders—U-M graduate students—changed all that. (Beware the grad student who puts aside his thesis to go into business.) After a few years, they decided to go big, opening a two-story shop on State Street, where they created an inventory system that ensured the books people were actually buying would get replaced within days—or hours.
They stocked almost everything. They gave customers room to relax and read. And they hired people who weren’t just clerks, but readers. George Will once wrote that if you asked a Borders’ employee where you could find “Billy Budd,” they wouldn’t tell you, “He doesn’t work here.” When I applied for a job there in college, they didn’t just hand me an application, but a test on literature—which I failed. But if they wouldn’t let me sell books, they still let me buy them, so perhaps it was just as well. I bought everything from Mark Twain’s “Innocents Abroad” to Hemingway’s “Nick Adams Stories” to Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” to Kurt Vonnegut’s “Slaughterhouse Five.” I was diving into a brave new world of literature, one that had no end. It was a heady time. Typically, I’d walk in to get one book, right before class, and walk out with four—an hour later. For a while there, I spent over a thousand dollars a year at Borders, quickly followed by a few hundred more for book shelves. When Borders spread across the state and then the country, we Michigan alums took an unearned pride in seeing the rest of the country love Borders as much as we did. If you wanted to get a taste of your college days, all you had to do was mail order something from Zingerman’s and step into your local Borders, and you were halfway back to Ann Arbor. But in the nineties, Borders conceded the internet to amazon.com, then in the last few years seemed to embark on a strategy designed not to effect a stirring comeback, but a slow retreat, which inevitably ended when Borders announced it was going out of business this summer. (It followed another beloved Ann Arbor institution, Shaman Drum, which for years had been the bookstore of choice for textbooks. Despite professors’ efforts to keep it afloat, the internet finished it off, too.)
This week I visited my local Border’s, Store Number One, right on Liberty, for the last time. I toured my favorite sections, literature and history, but also stopped by the children’s department, where I had picked out Dr. Seuss books for my nieces years ago. The oldest is now in college. I visited the travel stacks, where I planned trips to Turkey and Thailand, Spain and South America. I also bought books to teach me just enough of the native languages to get me into trouble, but not quite enough to get me out of it. I must have bought the cheaper ones. But I didn’t need to get on a plane to go places. Pick up a good book—completely portable, no plugs or batteries needed—and you can go anywhere you want, even back in time, in just minutes. Sitting on the benches and seats and easy chairs that occupied every corner of Border’s two-story palace of books, this is the adventure I went on every week.In 1989, in the State Street store’s reference section, I picked up a copy of “Writer’s Market,” because my writing instructor told me it was the bible for free-lance writers. I saved it. A few days ago, I pulled it out to take a look. In the back pages I had listed all the publications where I sent my articles, full of hope. I also recorded when they were returned, and what the editors had said. That first year, all but one rejected them. Thank you, Motor Trend. When that issue came out, with my piece titled, “Confessions of an Automotive Idiot” filling the back page, I went down to Borders to pick up ten copies of the magazine. I will never forget the private pride I felt walking up to the counter to buy something that, for once, had not been written by someone else.I kept buying “Writer’s Market” every year and sending out my stories. After a decade, I published my first book. I wrote my second book in Borders’ second-floor café—where I also listened to book readings of my friends, and of the famous—where the windows overlook the Michigan Theater. There were worse places to work.A few years ago, when my book with Bo Schembechler came out, Borders gave it a big display in every store in the country, but Store Number One sold more copies than all of them, making it one of their best-sellers. I was thrilled to give a little something back. I spent hours signing them, and the staff became colleagues, even friends.During my last visit, one of them approached me. “Hey, John, can I help you find anything?””No, thanks,” I said, then waved my arm over the entire store. “I just came to say goodbye to an old friend.” I shook his hand. “Thanks. For everything.”He nodded, keeping a stiff upper lip, then walked off to help someone else.
What about you? What do you remember about Borders? Did you work there? Spend time there during its heyday? Share your thoughts and stories in the comments section.
I remember very well going to the original
Borders quite regularly while a UM graduate
student in 1971-73. Tom Borders was usually
at the counter reading a book in between
customers. In those early days Borders sold
used as well as new books. Sorry to see it go.
Phyll Perry - 1973, 1989
Like many “townies”, I recall the Borders of the 70’s (and on up). A friendly, folksy, appealing place with all the charm of a Frank Capra film. The Borders brothers made good. We were all proud of them and “our” store. Indeed, it was a wonderful life! I shall miss Borders deeply (and the era of great reading, great books and great book stores!)
Amber Aponte - 1999
I worked at Borders as an undergrad until after I graduated. I started as a book clerk and went on to a full-time professional position. Borders will always be in my heart and defines a special part of my life. IMO, B&N lacks the heart and soul, and expertise, of Borders, and always will. All good things must come to an end, I guess. Best of luck to all the employees.
Kristin Johnson - 1994
As an aspiring (now published) author, I lived in Borders on Maynard and Liberty. Sci-fi section was just as awesome as Dawn Treader’s minus the first editions and all the old Star Trek books. It was an experience–sprawling, a den of books. It was a college haven.
Jolene Hastings - 1983
My first trip to Borders was to find the likes of Balzac and Proust for my French literature class. Back then, the store was on State Street right next to The Crown House of Gifts (alas, it too is no more). All of the foreign language literature was on the second floor. As I ascended the stairs, I was amazed to find a treasure trove of maps. Needless to say, I had to return another day as I left without my required reading.
Lydia Goldman - 1984
One of my favorite places to get lost for a few hours when I did not feel like studying. Heaven for a book junkie. After moving to CA from MI, was so proud to say I had been a customer of the “original”. Very sad to see it go.
mike reisman - 1979, 1983
I will always remeber “coffee table” books. Wen you neede a last minute birthday gift, one could always find a big book about what ever the birthday boy or girl loved…Harleys, world war 2, airplanes,cars etc. They were priced right and always well received.
Alberta Auringer Wood - 1964, 1965, 1973
I lived in Ann Arbor during its earliest years, bought books, and had at least one friend who worked there. Having lived places for over thirty years without a Borders, it seemed somewhat like home when visiting my daughter in Wellington, New Zealand, in 2009-2010 and this year, to be able to go to the Borders there. I am so sad to see Borders close down.
Ruth Jones - 1981
Before coming to the U as a graduate student in a small program, collecting books in my field was more like a scavenger hunt because of their rarity. But Borders was a revelation. They had a whole section (a very small one, unheard of in any other bookstore) with its own Shelf Tag! Thanks to Borders, many of us in our program managed to fill out our own research libraries, along with any other books we could afford. Over the years Borders continued to be my bookstore of choice, in other cities, states. The store will be sorely missed, for sure.
A few colleagues of mine posted your good-bye on their Facebook and I opened this curiously. I have worked for Borders for the past four years in Oak Brook, Illinois.
Thank you, this is very well written. It has been difficult to see our store, and all the other Borders close. I thought you might enjoy this letter that is currently posted at our store for all our customers and dear friends to see: http://www.flickr.com/photos/stofza/5988917121/sizes/l/in/photostream/
It was written by one of our managers and we all share in the sentiments. We weren’t just staff, we were family. The customers weren’t just patrons, they were friends and book lovers alike. I will miss the atmosphere, but most importantly I will miss the ability to share my passion for literature and learning that I could do daily at Borders.
John Lehman - 1972, 1973, 1977, 1982
My girlfriend and I used to go to the first two incarnations of Borders on dates in the early 1970’s (we’re married now, and “did you read….?” is a daily part of our life). In summer of 1976 I did an MBA project on the bookstore industry which involved the Border brothers’ plans for expansion, and the IT support they would need to make it work).
Jessica Pitelka Opfer - 1999
I loved visiting Borders store No. 1 while getting my masters at SNRE; when I won an award at graduation, the prize was a Borders gift certificate. Now, as an aspiring author, seeing Borders close its doors is especially depressing. I just paid my last visit to the Rochester Hills store with my 3-year-old daughter and had to explain that we would not be going there anymore. The world of book-selling will never be the same.
Toni Bader - 1968
Living in Indianapolis, I was looking for a job and saw an ad from an Ann Arbor based bookstore. I didn’t realize then that this was the store that my children went to during my brother’s medical school graduation. I was hired to be the publicity director and worked there in that position for five+ years. Then I was bumped from my part-time job by a full-time marketer and went from directing my own time to working on the clock. Big difference. But I stayed for another four years and I loved working for Borders. I was saddened by the direction the company took after I left (not my fault). Borders and Barnes and Noble changed the face of bookselling across the country I was proud to be a part of it at Store #16 (the third Borders in the chain).
Marianna Katona - 1961
It was great to browse at Borders, while listening to classical music. At one occasion, after buying the book I needed, one of my favorite chamber music pieces started to play. I couldn’t leave, but kept walking around listening and looking at more books. Needless to say, I found several more books to buy.
Linda Kelsey - 1978
When friends and family would come to visit, Borders was always a place to show them and they were impressed, being fellow book lovers. It is truly sad to see the demise of this once great Ann Arbor institution.
Anne Zimmerman - 1977
I remember and loved Borders when I first went there, at the original University Ave. location (before State St. right?) left Ann Arbor when I graduated and this article, though written by a more recent A2 resident, captured so many memories and thoughts of mine too.
thank you Borders for when you were they way you were.
Nancy McGirr - 1969
When the Border’s brothers first started they had a booth at Ann Arbor’s monthly antique flea market an my mother would stop and speak with them. They sold old maps and first edition books. When my book was published, (I work with kids and originally with the community that lived in Guatemala City’s garbage dump-it was a book of their photographs and writings by the kids themselves) my mother went and spoke ot them and they carried it nationally. My mother would often go into the children’s section where the books were and arrange a “display”
Elaine Wangberg Menchaca - 1970, 1979
I remember when a student\’s only choice for textbooks was the UM bookstore in the Union; there was no price competition. Then, a wondrous happening–a place called Border\’s opened up in a rundown, old small warehouse-like building on Liberty. I bought my textbooks there at a reasonable price from then on. We didn’t mind the somewhat dirty, old shelving look–we had found a friend in Border\’s.
Patrick Larkey - MPP, 1971; PhD, 1975
My office was adjacent and above the site of the original Borders from 1972 to 1975. The space, occupied by the Institute of Public Policy Studies (now the Ford School) was rumored to have been a bowling alley.
Border’s coming into existence was a substantive delight and a financial disaster for some of us. The store was conveniently placed between the street exit from the office and the parking structure around the corner. So much to read. So little time. Less money.
Amy Spade Silverman - 1992
I too remember exactly what I bought in 1987 at the State Street location: a slim, orange volume of Sappho poems, which I still have and cherish. I loved spending hours in the poetry and Russian lit sections, dreaming of my future life as a writer. It was the first bookstore I ever loved. RIP Borders.
Dan Ross - ...
I’m proud to say that B.J. Hoffman (Killeen) and I were the Motor Trendies who saw John’s talent even back then. I don’t mind that we’ve been proven so awfully correct in that judgment. I’m honored to have called him friend for more than 20 years.
Betsy Vokac - 1979
The thrill of browsing even knowing I didn\’t have money to buy. And the shelves of literature smuggled out of the Soviet Union! What a place! Somehow when Borders became \”big\” I wanted to defend it to friends supporting local independent booksellers. Thanks and thanks again to Borders.
Gail Stander - 1974
Once I went to Borders to get a dog book. There were dogs there! The greyhound rescue people had brought some of their animals that needed homes. I fell in love with one (his name was Redwing) but I had to leave without him. I did buy a book about Greyhounds though, to remember him by forever.
I remember going to the Border’s store in Ann Arbor when it first opened. I was five years old and bought my first chapter book as I could already read! I told my mom that I would have a book in the big window some day…well, I guess it’s too late now, even though I am now a writer and working on my book…so sad…like a friend dying. Best to my brother Ted’s friend Michael who worked there for years…
Glenn Spencer - 40
Something that no one quite articulates, but talks around is the feel of a Borders store. No other store felt like a Borders store. It was just a real comfortable feeling. I believe you could take someone into any one of their stores blindfolded, and once inside when you removed the blindfold, they would say it feels like Borders.
Ashley Moore - 2000
Hi My name is Ash from http://www.removalmarket.co.uk and Ive got to say that we provided the removals companies for borders closure and it was a very sad day.