I’ve been back to Ann Arbor a few times since I graduated in 2008, and visiting the alma mater always stirs up conflicted feelings. Of course I’m nostalgic for the time in my life where responsibilities were minimal and freedom was unlimited. I had a lot of fun, but each trip back is a great reminder that the world moves on with or without you—and ultimately you have to evolve or risk life passing you by.
This is even more apparent this time around, in a brick and mortar sense, with the closing of Borders. The original Borders is located in downtown Ann Arbor (along with company headquarters) and its huge—a “you can’t miss it” local landmark. Founded in 1971, the company had over 500 stores and nearly 20,000 employees, a few of which I’d call friends.
The summer after my freshman year I went home to stay with my parents in New Jersey, where they’d moved after I graduated high school. Not having friends or much to do, I sought employment, and somewhat surprisingly was hired at the first place I applied—Borders. I’d learned a valuable lesson from an old teacher—when faced with those multiple choice morality tests that big chains make you labor through, give them the answer you know they want, even if no one would really alert management if they noticed a fellow employee stealing pencils. Those tests spit out a score, and being adept at standardized testing tactics pushed mine to the top of the pile.
It was a pretty wild few months working at store #094. I was mostly stationed in the music section, though everyone had to take turns working the registers and information desk. A couple of the managers took a liking to me, and one of them was clearly going through something. We both liked jazz (which Borders actually had a decent selection of) so I’d tell him if he ever wanted to talk about what he was going through, he was welcome to join me after work for a joint and some Coltrane. He repeatedly declined until one day he took me up on the offer.
As we drove around an area I was completely unfamiliar with, he started unraveling a story so startling that I almost drove off the road a few times, despite his nonchalant demeanor. My previous offers had been rebuffed due to his ongoing probation for assaulting a police officer. Telling the story backwards he explained how he’d gotten to that point—a spiral of addiction, bad relationships (that produced one lovely daughter) and increasingly desperate acts. Throughout all of it, he held down his job at Borders, smoking crack in the parking lot and shooting up in the office, throwing up in trashcans when supplies ran low.
Even weirder, I had another manager who allegedly hadn’t cashed a paycheck in six years. At the end of the summer, they told me if I wanted to forgo college and stay they’d make me a manager. Uh, no thanks!
Even then, I could tell Borders had issues, although I don’t think I could have predicted how rapidly they’d sink the entire company. For starters, every week we’d get a packet from corporate detailing exactly how every display needed to be laid out, and exactly which books we’d be stocking. The music section was especially confounding—sometimes they’d send us 75 of some album I knew we’d sell three of, and three copies of something I knew people would be asking for all week. Being micromanaged clearly took its toll on the other employees; especially those who knew it hadn’t always been that way. Borders was no longer a place for someone with a passion for book. Anyone who could operate a register and spit out “Do you have a Borders rewards card?” with half a smile was more than qualified.
Not that Borders ever catered to a particularly intellectual consumer. That was the summer my faith in human intelligence died, as I was repeatedly asked questions like, “Do you have an easier version of this Charles Dickens book I need to read for school?” and “Where is your Jack the Ripper section?” My all-time favorite came from a middle-aged businessman (complete with suit and briefcase) who made a beeline for the information desk and asked me “Do you have paperbacks?” I think I must have made a face and hesitated a moment too long, because he then angrily blurted “You know, paperback BOOKS.” I laughed, said, “Are you looking for fiction? Mystery?” To which he replied, “PAAAAPERBAAAACKS!” “Sir, we have hundreds of thousands of those, they are surrounding you.” He stormed out.
As dumb as that sounds, a decision Borders execs made before I even came along proved to be even dumber. In 2001, the company decided to let amazon.com handle all its online sales, for some unfathomable reason. Borders became successful by having so many more books than most bookstores could ever stock, but there’s no competing with the Internet when it comes to selection—and to disregard that almost entirely was tantamount to forfeiting. Coupled with ill-advised global expansion and a worthy adversary in the (slightly) more forward-thinking Barnes & Noble, and Borders’ days were numbered.
And now they’re done. The store that used to loom over Ann Arbor is now covered in 40-60 percent off signs. All the fixtures are for sale, and for the first time in ages it seems like the store is busy. Most of the customers are just gawking, a few are deal-hunting and I was there to try and find a few things on my reading list. They didn’t have a single book I was looking for, but it’s questionable whether or not they ever carried them.
I didn’t think I’d be sad to see Borders go. Despite working there I never felt any particular allegiance, especially with the handful of excellent used bookstores in Ann Arbor constantly turning me on to new writers — but it was bizarrely emotional saying goodbye. I guess its sort of like going back to your old college stomping grounds: nostalgia abounds, but it’s not a place you’d ever like to move back to.
Thanks for the great read. I worked at the Borders at Meyerland Plaza here in Houston from about 97-00 so I feel your pain. It was at the height of Harry Potter mania, oh and let's not forget the Beanie Babies. Ugh.