Reflections on the company's decline
by Sally Mitani
In early March the Arborland Borders was festooned with black, yellow, and red block print signage bearing more exclamation points than any reputable English teacher would allow: Nothing Held Back!! Everything on Sale!! The place was mobbed. Periodically a loudspeaker blared rules about coupons and discounts (in most cases, forget it) and returns (ditto).
Front and center on the hardcover table: George W. Bush's Decision Points. Flanking that, books by Glenn Beck, Rand Paul, and--perhaps a weak attempt at a counterbalance--a book about how President Obama saved the auto industry. Also, a stack of Toxic Men, irony clearly unintentional.
A few tables back, a woman was unloading boxes and boxes of Eat Pray Love paperbacks. When is the store closing? "About eight weeks," she said shortly. Does she have another job lined up? "Nope," even more shortly.
Dissolve to Borders thirty years ago, State Street era: "You had that front table of display books, none of which were the best-sellers of the day. Half of them were university press books. Then the next display case you came to were all university press books. There was some arcane shit there," reminisces Keith Taylor.
Taylor, a familiar face in Ann Arbor letters with his bushy white beard and hearty good-humored candor, is coordinator of U-M's undergraduate subconcentration in creative writing and a poet (as well as a frequent contributor to the Observer). He worked at Borders for eight years in the 1980s. "We very proudly didn't even carry certain kinds of best-sellers," he continues. "If you looked at the best-seller list in 1981, out of twelve or fifteen books, I'll betcha Borders didn't carry ten of them. Didn't carry 'em. Didn't want to!"
The reason often cited for Borders' meteoric rise is the revolutionary book inventory software invented by Louis Borders. Hogwash, says Taylor. "The reason people drove from Chicago or Indianapolis or St. Louis to spend a weekend buying books wasn't the Borders inventory system. It was because it was a bookstore
where they could be certain of finding certain kinds of things, and because it was a store with an attitude. We were snobs, and we were encouraged to be snobs. The people who worked there were literary people--or literary wannabes, anyway. Borders was successful because of that attitude. When they went corporate, they lost that attitude almost immediately."
Taylor dates the beginning of Borders' demise to the opening of the second store in 1985: "I was at the meeting with Tom Borders when they announced they were opening their second store, and I kept raising objections. He looked at me and said, 'Keith! Why so negative?' It took me twenty-five years," he laughs, "but I was proved right."
This article has been edited since it appeared in the March 2011 Ann Arbor Observer. Keith Taylor's title has been corrected.
[Originally published in April, 2011.]