Borders Bankruptcy, the Demise of Arborland Borders, and the Rise of E-Books

I worked for Borders Bookstore in Ann Arbor for two separate stints. The first time I was employed by Borders I worked in the downtown store in Ann Arbor in the heart of the University of Michigan. When I worked there it was not the original location where the Borders brothers had first opened, but rather a remodeled Jacobson’s store that provided a larger space.

I have very fond memories of the original store with its center area and gallery that ran around the outer walls. I can remember sitting on the steps of the store on State Street and reading Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot. I would sit there for hours and the staff there knew me and knew to leave me alone because the books themselves would seduce me. I spent far more money than a college student who worked three jobs to get her Bachelors degree in English Language and Literature should ever have spent on books. The original Borders was a magical place for a girl who loved books and came from a rural area where it was forty five minute drive to even get to a mall with a small Walden Books and there was no such thing as ordering books online.

The first time that I worked for Borders before being hired we had to take a test of our knowledge of books. I passed the test and Joe Gable who was the manager at the time hired me to do special orders. Working with special orders I got to see the best of books and ones I would never have looked at on my own. The best I can remember from that time period were books like “Manifold Destiny” which was a cookbook that gave step by step directions, recipes, and mileage for cooking tasty dishes utilizing the heat from a car engine. Another book was a book of poetry called “Gorillas of Grace”. Such a lovely book. The first time I worked at Borders was an exciting time in the history of the company. They had gone corporate and the Borders brothers worked within the corporation. The company was expanding and opening stores all across the country. Friends from the downtown store were scattered across the United States as they took store management positions. Joe Gable fought to keep the stores feeling like the original Borders on State Street where patrons could browse for hours undistrubed by pesky booksellers and where booksellers were appreciated for their knowledge of books and their ability to make good recommendations. There was a love of books that permeated the store.

Several years ago I applied for a holiday position at the Arborland Borders store. I think it might have been November 2005. I worked that mad and rather crazy holiday season in the Seattle’s Best Coffee cafe within the Borders at Arborland. The lines for people purchasing books ran to the back of the store and it was very busy. But I noticed a few things. The staff at Arborland were very knowledgable about books and did an amazing job recommending books and helping customers to get what they needed, but now there was a kind of script that was to be said at the cash register. In part the recognition of the people coming into Borders were no longer that they were people but rather they were customers to optimize sales from. The Borders Rewards card was continuously “suggested”. Perhaps to show the financial district that Borders was still viable? I don’t know. In my opinion, the memos coming from the corporate office had a feel about them that did not mesh with the original Borders that I remembered.

I continued to work for the next few years for Borders as a part time employee. This included watching in amazement as the corporate office decided to empty the shelves one November to make the company more liquid. This was right before the holiday season and we were told to place the books on the shelves facing out so that it looked like the shelves were still full. No one was fooled by this. There just wasn’t the selection available that customers wanted. Sales were dramatically down that holiday season and the Borders’ company stock dipped under a dollar and stayed there.

One semester I was taking three classes and working as a math and writing tutor so I decided to take a leave from Borders. When I came back in June of 2009 I was horrified to learn that the number of booksellers had been cut dramatically, good book people who had been assistant managers had been fired, and there was a new training and sales initiative. The new training I was given was to greet anyone who came in the door or any customer within fifteen feet and to recommend two corporate chosen books that were the books for that two week period. I was told that we had no choice as booksellers about this we had to push those specially chosen titles. This kind of forced handselling I found reprehensible on many levels and I quit because of it. Maybe it made good corporate sense, but it bothered me.

I miss Borders. I miss the people that I worked with. I miss the people who were regulars. The sales of e-books are on the rise, more people own dedicated e-readers, and I don’t think the trend towards more electronically published titles and greater sales of such books is going to go by the wayside. Bookstores however are important. The Borders brothers so many decades ago knew what they were doing. Bookstores are community places. Places where booklovers can sit and absorb the written word, feel a new book in their hands, look over the chapters. Bookstores are places where people can feel at home. A local bookstore should foster that sense of community and be part of the neighborhood. The events should be things that bring people together and help them feel some ownership towards the store. A bookstore should never just be a commercial enterprise, that is a sure-fire way to not sell books in an age where they are cheaper online and can be downloaded in seconds.

I will miss the Borders at Arborland that is scheduled to be closed in the bankruptcy and cost cutting plan. What I will miss is not the books but the people that made Borders a great place to come in to work to.