"So what went wrong?" people have asked me since the news broke that the giant Borders chain has declared bankruptcy. They're assuming that because I'm a long-time journalist in Ann Arbor, where the chain is headquartered, I have some inside knowledge of its failure that the business pundits lack. I don't.
What I do know what "Store Number One," as it was later called, strove to be; in the early days, I worked there--the worst clerk in a store whose manager was ambitious to make it one of the very best bookstores in the country.
"You should be proud," another clerk told me when I was hired at the store in August 1978. "Lots of very qualified people applied for your job."
A young liberals art grad with no practical skills, I was proud. Borders didn't pay much, but the job had prestige; locals took great pride in their jewel of a bookstore, so dazzling in its inventory. Started in a tiny storefront by brothers Tom and Louis Borders seven years earlier, the store was now housed in a spacious, two-floor building close to the University of Michigan campus. Book lovers drove from across the state and beyond to peruse sections ranging from Sci Fi to Economics to Women's Studies--a decided contrast to the offerings of the mall stores, heavy with bestsellers and romances.
I stood meekly the day the store's pipe-smoking, laconic manager, Joe Gable looked at my resume, unimpressed. "Another writer," he drawled. "What we need are people who can work the cash register." Still, he let me take The Test, the legendary questionnaire (eventually dropped, as the stores multiplied) that determined whether you were worthy to serve Borders customers. "In what section would you find books by Laura Ingalls Wilder? About Mahler?" I never learned my score, but a week later I joined the disciplined world maintained by Gable, a Ph.D. dropout to whom Tom and Louis had given complete control.
During my shifts I moved from the cash register to working the floor ("May I help you find something?") to unloading boxes in the basement to inspecting my assigned sections. Long-time clerks got the dream sections--history, literature. As the newest hire, I inherited Sailing, Games (bridge, chess, even one tome on darts), Wrestling. Once, in a fit of the sulks, I didn't shelve the sailing books for three days--until Joe caught on, and chewed me out.
He and I soon realized that I was not his idea of an exemplary bookseller. It was not enough to be nice to customers and to know that Daniel Deronda didn't work there. My sections were often sloppy (Joe detested books sticking out), and I was slow on the cash register. In my seven months there, I never learned to change the register ribbon; Joe watched, disgusted, while other clerks scrambled to help. It was rumored that he had never fired anyone; with me, he came close.
My humiliations were alleviated by my status as a Borders insider, the twenty percent employee discount, and the staff's unabashed passion for books. "What are you reading?" was a daily greeting. Gable reinforced our sense that in connecting people to books we were doing something important. He was caught in the excitement of building what he believed was one of the bookstores in the country, and even the store's worst clerk, me, felt I was part of something important.
Back then, no one except perhaps the close-mouthed brothers dreamed that our Borders would spawn hundreds of clones and then the world. In that cloning, the stores would become something less than what Store Number One had been but would make Borders a household word and revolutionize the world of bookselling. It would also force the closing of a lot of independents, whose former owners probably experienced a heady moment when they heard of the bankruptcy.
For long-time Ann Arbor residents, watching the Borders phenomeon play itself out has been a bewildering, and sometimes sad experience. A number of depressing comments have been made recently about how Store Number One appears disorganized and low on stock (books, not cards or calendars). The approaching train wreck has been apparent for some time, but maybe people who love books have trouble seeing it, always wanting a happy ending.