I Remember Borders…


I remember when Borders was a fabulous independent bookstore in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

When I arrived at the University of Michigan in the fall of 1989 to start graduate school, Borders seemed like heaven. The size of the Classics section was jaw-dropping. I did almost nothing to resist temptation, and spent  far too much of my fellowship money on books, then and thereafter. Not until moving to Berkeley was I so blessed with regard to local bookstores.

I was shocked and horrified in 1992 when I learned that Borders had been bought by Kmart. Kmart was cheap, mass-market, strip-mall, low-price, low-value, disposable goods. Borders was unique. It had style, personality, place. It was intellectual, scholarly, full of  rare academic books that wouldn’t be of the least interest to the average Kmart shopper, many of them imported.

But all that happened in the short term was that Borders moved from State Street to Liberty Street, to occupy a larger space and expand its music collection. It was just as good a place to shop for books on Greek tragedy.

I visited my parents in Ohio and found a Borders in a strip mall. It didn’t much resemble the Borders in Ann Arbor. It had a coffee shop in it. And a lot of books on the best-seller list.

I left Ann Arbor and moved to England in 1994. When I came to San Francisco in 1998, I found a Borders in Union Square.

It had a coffee shop.

Apart from that, nothing much distinguished it from Waterstones, the big chain in the UK. (Well, they make paperbacks in a slightly different size there. And they charge more money for them.) It wasn’t half as interesting as Black Oak, or Moe’s, or Cody’s, or Pegasus, or the Other Change of Hobbit, or any of the independents in Berkeley.

Most of which are closed now.

But as a place to meet people, and for selection, the Borders in Emeryville is vastly superior to the Barnes & Noble here in El Cerrito. Better seating. More power outlets. Free Wi-Fi. Definitely more books, though I confess that when I buy books locally, I most often buy them used, and I’m as guilty of buying from Amazon as the next person. The coffee shop is usually busy; the store itself, less so.

Now Borders is preparing to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. 200 stores are expected to close immediately, with more likely to follow.

I wonder what would have happened if they’d stayed on State Street and stayed independent? Would they have been squeezed out the way Cody’s and Black Oak were? Would it just have been someone else whose overextended chain of book superstores was floundering now? It’s doubtful Kmart could have taken Waldenbooks as far as Borders got without help from Borders. Would Barnes & Noble now be tottering unopposed throughout the nation’s strip malls? (Though not yet on the verge of bankruptcy, Barnes & Noble floated the idea of putting itself on the market in 2010.)

I will grieve  if the Borders where I like to meet clients closes. But I grieve more for the Borders of my memory, that catered so spectacularly to the needs of local customers.

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