Archive for September 14th, 2011

Remembering Borders in Ann Arbor

Wednesday, September 14th, 2011
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Bye-bye Borders (Photo courtesy of the Ann Arbor Chronicle)

Borders is gone, and with it an era.

So say all the eulogies, but that era has been long gone for me.  The flagship Borders had a special role in my life. I grew up in a north-of-Detroit suburban burg called Bloomfield Hills.  The nearest bookstore, or what passed for a bookstore, was a “media” store that sold newspapers, magazines, and a few top-selling paperbacks.  It was about a mile away on foot for this book-hungry teenager.

So arriving at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor was like a starving man suddenly surrounded with éclairs.  How could I miss the first-ever Borders on Maynard Street?  It was just down the street from The Michigan Daily – at that time called “the New York Times of student newspapers” (by the New York Times, no less) – where I spent all my waking hours, and many hours I was supposed to be in class, working alongside journalists who would became renowned nationally and internationally.  (Tom Hayden was a former editor – and returned occasionally for a visit.)

As I spent all my time at 420 Maynard, I spent all my money at 311 Maynard, the location of Borders, enacting Erasmus‘s famous dictum, “”When I get a little money I buy books; and if any is left I buy food and clothes.”

According to the  CNN:

He was right.

“Borders used to be chockablock with books,” said Jonathan Marwil, a University of Michigan history professor and author of a history of Ann Arbor. “It has increasingly looked less like a bookstore than a bowling alley, with its wide-open spaces. Now they’re selling children’s dolls on the front counter. It’s really pretty grim.”

It was a place where employees were devoted to their jobs. They prided themselves on their knowledge of their assigned sections — and everybody else’s. It was a gathering place and community center, just up the street from the university’s main campus.

“We worked when we didn’t have to work because we didn’t know we were working. We would go into the store when it was closed to do more work,” said Sharon Gambin, who arrived for the 1982 holiday season and went on to hold several positions during a three-decade career. “That’s how much we loved what we did.”

According to the Macomb County Legal News, “The 40-year-old Ann Arbor-based bookseller hasn’t turned a profit since 2006, having lost $605 million in the last four fiscal years.”

Borders was founded in 1971 by brothers Tom and Louis Borders, who were University of Michigan students.

Ann Arbor scene ... I don't miss the winters.

Originally called Borders Book Shop, it was located in a 800-square-foot building on South State Street in downtown Ann Arbor (currently, Borders in downtown Ann Arbor is located at Liberty and Maynard in what was once Jacobson’s Department Store — another defunct Michigan-based business — and is considered the flagship store).

Not so.  It began on Maynard and Liberty, and moved later.  I remember Jacobson’s, too – the Bloomingdale’s of Michigan.

I still have the (unread) multi-volume Marlborough: His Life and Times, by Winston Churchill, that I bought on one of my gluttony, when I would leave with a pile of books.  I remember a fellow Daily-ite from Nebraska telling me he had to order books directly from the publisher.  Time was short, buy books now.

As bookstores disappear into cyberspace, many of us are once again miles away from the occasional signpost of civilization.

Isn’t this the part of the movie where I walked in?

Postscript on 9/15:  Others are sharing their memories of their “first time” – first big experience with a bookstore.

From Jeff Sypeck: “I was in college in 1991 when a Borders opened in Central Jersey. It was such a big deal that we brought jealous out-of-towners to see it; they took home t-shirts as souvenirs. If I were 20 now, and someone told me that, I’m not sure I’d believe it.”

From John Murphy of the University of Virginia: “‘Purists’ sometime knock the big-box chains like Borders and Barnes and Noble. But, growing up in a a very small town, I appreciate the value they have — or, in the case of Borders, the value they had. We had a good public library, but …we were not large enough as a town to support any kind of locally-owned bookstore at all. So Waldenbooks and B. Dalton half an hour away were a very good thing and Borders and Barnes and Noble an hour away were an even better thing. I truly don’t think that the world would have been a better place if the big-city bookstore cultures where ‘purists’ tend to be had never been ‘subjected’ to Borders at all and if people growing up in small towns like mine had never had access to any bookstore culture at all.

And Ken Latta also remembers the original Ann Arbor Borders.  He had an open purchase order at Borders “so I could walk over at lunch time and pick up books for work. Year later wandering around the country consulting one measure of civilization was having a Borders and a Starbucks, hopefully co-located.”