“Just because we followed Greece into democracy does not mean we need to follow them into bankruptcy,” said Minnesota Governor Tom Pawlenty, a GOP presidential hopeful in Washington this week for the Conservative Political Action Conference.
Unfortunately, Borders Group, Inc., the ailing Ann Arbor, Michigan, bookseller is unlikely to avoid the fate of the land of Homer. The company will be filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy-protection. It may have already done so by the time this article is posted.
The rise and fall of this safe haven for bibliophiles began in 1971 when Tom and Louis Borders, brothers, opened a modest bookstore in Ann Arbor, home of the University of Michigan. By the time I moved to Michigan in 1993, the store was an incredible institution with as diverse and substantial an inventory as one could imagine. With the advantage of a very literate, educated market, combined with sophisticated marketing, it was a book lover’s Paradise. Its music selections were unmatched anywhere.
Whenever I visited Ann Arbor, I used to test the booksellers at the Ann Arbor flagship store, often requesting some obscure title on history, literature, philosophy or politics. Invariably, they found the book in stock, available for purchase. Not exactly just-in-time inventory management, but so much the better for the bookish customer.
Truth be told, I spent a lot of money at Borders over the years, even signing up for the Rewards card in recent years-just another rationalization to buy books based on the supposed “savings” of buying more books than you have time read so you can buy even more books than you need. But we are talking wants here, not needs.
Eventually, Borders, as with other bookstores, introduced coffee shops with comfortable seating and tables. This allowed me to comb through the book racks and the magazines, piling up many volumes, journals and publications to read through for, oh, an hour or two, while sipping a cup of hot or iced coffee depending on the season. Then I would make the final cut as to what books or magazines I would buy, return the remainder to the racks, and saunter to the counter to make my purchases. There was (is?) no better way to spend a late Saturday afternoon. Naturally, I would be sure to turn off my cell phone while in the temple.
Alas, the demise of a large reading public, the rise of electronic readers, the success of Amazon.com, and, it appears, financial missteps have brought Borders to this sorry state.
My sister is a sales and marketing rep on the West Coast for a major New York publishing company. Her personal and professional focus is on truly independent bookstores which she correctly views as more concerned and interested in books and readers than on simply sales and marketing.
These venerable establishments are a vanishing breed. One thinks of the Elliott Bay Book Company in Seattle, a legendary bookseller; the Tattered Cover in Denver; or Left Bank Books in the Central West End of my hometown, St. Louis.
Many of the staff working in these stores are Lefties. But they know their books; and, good liberals all, really try hard to be of service to the customer. While in college I worked for a political consultant during the summer. He would often send me out to the old Book Nook in Clayton, Missouri, the county seat of St. Louis County, to pick up his many and large orders of books. He had an account there, was an amazing reader and a valued customer. The old woman who ran the store (her name escapes after so many years) was the only card-carrying Communist I ever met growing up in the Midwest. Despite my strong antipathy to that wretched ideology, she delighted me with her knowledge of books, authors, and literature of all kinds. She was a character right out of a novel.
So now I live in the wilds of the Washington suburbs with only chain bookstores, and a few solid used bookstores, making more and more of my purchases on line, which, I admit, can be a real convenience if you know what you want. But that is the point of a bookstore or a library: you find things you did not know you wanted or, perchance, needed. I have heard this experience described as serendipitous, i.e., in the nature of “a seeming gift for finding good things accidentally,” according to my dictionary.
To the credit of Borders, they managed to preserve some semblance of the independent bookstore in their stores, until recently at least, carrying a varied and rich selection of books and hiring staff who seemed knowledgeable.
It was the mass marketing stuff with which they seemed to have had problems. I found it a disturbing trend, though, when Borders started erecting prominent displays of books and other paraphernalia about teenage vampires in love. In truth, maybe reading, truly reading, deeply and seriously, and mass marketing, are mutually exclusive propositions.
Here’s to the staff of Borders. May they pull their chestnuts out of the fire and survive in this age of mass consumerism while maintaining, dare I say, their ethos, incorporating the best of the old and the new.