Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Chain Culture: The Loss of Borders and the End of a World

When the Borders brothers sold their budding bookstore chain, the company was well known for its impeccable customer service, top-notch inventory system and large-format approach that uprooted the way the books were sold.

But the Borders shopping experience eroded over the years as the chain grew in size, management became unwieldy, the Internet encroached on sales and electronic books emerged as an alternative for avid book readers.[1]
A number of reasons have been given as to why Borders, a used bookstore founded in Ann Arbor in 1971 that became a retail chain in 1992, ended in bankruptcy in 2011. Among the most prevalent are: the rise of the ebook, competition with Amazon, overexpansion of retail locations, overinvestment in music sales, and various mismanagement decisions. quipped, “It died by a thousand—OK, maybe just four or five—self-inflicted paper cuts.”[2]

But Nathan Bomey is right when he places the erosion of the Borders shopping experience at the head of the list.

A shopping experience may be a more difficult thing to quantify than the ubiquitous assertion of mismanagement, but it is very real. In the case of Borders, the erosion of the shopping experience was deadly.

I grew up in suburban Detroit in the 1970s, about 40 minutes from Ann Arbor. Two youth counselors at my church had been students at the University of Michigan, and were well acquainted with the first Borders Store on State Street, and took us there on an expedition. This was not its very first location, but it was already a fully mature destination of wonder. Large, with brick walls and multiple levels, it seemed to have every coffee table art book under the sun, scholarly titles, mystical new age books, books on world cinema, and cultural journals. I never had any money in those days, but in the early 80s, when me and my friends haunted the art film houses ensconced all over campus, Borders was a place to explore before or between screenings. (Undoubtedly, the mystique of Borders influenced the naming of 1980s science fiction comic book saga Border Worlds.)

When store #9 appeared in the South Hills of Pittsburgh in the early 90s, I did have money, and I spent a lot of it there. I can’t remember if I saw the store logo driving past, or heard about it from a friend, but as soon as I learned that a Borders store had opened, I realized that the world had become a better place. It was not as great as the Ann Arbor location, but it was still a destination and a treasure house. I spent many a rainy Saturday night there, sipping coffee and coming home with Neil Forsyth’s The Old Enemy: Satan and the Combat Myth, or Joseph Campbell, or many a coffee table book that I still have in my library.

When store #174 open in the North Hills, it was not as great as store #9, it was still good. From 2000 to 2005, I worked there part time on and off. It was there that I was inspired to go back to school, finally earning my PhD in art history in 2013. This was during the heyday of Harry Potter and Chicken Soup, and one of my own freelance illustration jobs, for Al Franken’s Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right appeared. It was only slightly absurd that the book for which I had drawn The Adventures of Supply Side Jesus was one of the innumerable items I rang up as a cashier, or helped people to locate as a bookseller. (No, I never mentioned that, by the way, I was the cartoonist!)

But I was not that unusual in having an example of my work on sale at Borders. A number of the staff were highly creative, particularly in music but also in theater. The manager recorded a smooth country album produced by another employee that played on the store sound system for several weeks, and other employees often had publications and creative offerings of one sort or another featured in the store.

Life without Culture: Undoubtedly, the mystique of Borders influenced the naming of 1980s science fiction comic book saga Border Worlds. An unpublished panel.
But during my time at Borders, the shopping or customer experience did erode noticeably, along with the employee experience, at the end of my time there quite precipitously. At the beginning, each store had its own CRC or Community Relations Coordinator, a person responsible for scheduling events such as folk singers in the café, local author signings, or weekly or monthly meetings of the poetry group; it had a rack of free brochures and local independent newsweeklies; a plethora of scholarly titles; and still a wide selection of off-beat magazines. Most importantly, it had knowledgeable employees who cared about culture in its manifold forms.

But quickly the CRCs were replaced by regional staffers overseeing multiple stores, and finally event planners in the corporate headquarters. The quirky folk singers were routed out, and events were stripped down to a few big-label music releases. Author signings followed suit, with local authors eliminated for fewer, bigger national names. Groups that were once given coupons for free cups of coffee and announced over the store sound system were quietly eliminated. The number of sofas and chairs strewn about the store for customers were eliminated, as well as (maliciously) the stools for employees manning the service desk. The brochure rack disappeared.

None of these clunky, handmade aspects of Borders were profit centers in and of themselves, and many of them were inefficient and bothersome to employees. I personally found the local iteration of the Socrates Café, a meeting of overly loud bullshitters named after the book, extremely fatuous. But they all contributed to the atmosphere of Borders as a unique, even sometimes bizarre experience, and their loss contributed to the erosion of the shopping experience and, guess what, the bottom line.

A word about those knowledgeable employees: a typical Borders bookseller was college educated, perhaps changed majors too many times to complete a degree, maybe had even dropped out of grad school, or was by temperament or otherwise unsuited either to academia or the corporate business world. For these sensitive souls, work at a chain bookstore at slightly above minimum wage might not have amounted to a career, but it allowed them to utilize their minds and earn an employee discount, and to be among some of the rich cultural resources that they loved.

Such a labor pool certainly existed in Ann Arbor in the 1970s, and nearly every major city and college town into which the Borders chain initially expanded had a ready supply of such employees. In more than one way, the growth of the chain eventually outstripped this labor pool, and by the early 2000s (myself notwithstanding), such knowledgeable, geeky, cultured, and book-loving employees were in increasing short supply. (College, it seemed, had become too expensive for humanities majors, or at least for humanities majors to drop out before completing their degrees and getting a real job to pay back their student loans.) New employees could have been working in any kind of retail or fast food business, and manifestly could not have cared less about books or culture. Indeed, many of the older, knowledgeable employees of the type that built the Borders brand were consciously being routed out by management as the 2000s wore on, along with the free weekly newspapers, the quirky folk singers, and the pompous poetry groups.

While ringing up a Schaum’s Algebra workbook in 2002, I had a serendipitous (serendipity being one of my church youth counselors’ favorite words) moment, and realized I should go back to college. I started part-time in January 2003 at the Community College of Allegheny County, and was full-time by the fall. I earned 60 gen ed transfer credits and started at Pitt in 2005. During this time I phased out my part-time employment at Borders, which finally concluded with the end of the 2005 Christmas season (a notoriously bullying manager that had been transferred to our store was summarily fired after the holidays). By this time, the chain had already cultivated a corporate feel virtually indistinguishable from Barnes & Noble.

It is important to note that even as store stock contracted and the notorious Categories scheme was implemented (turning the de facto control of entire genres over to the highest-bidding publishers), it was still useful to work part-time at Borders even and especially as I returned to school full-time. Familiar with the ordering system, I could make SPOs (special purchase orders) of virtually any title in print and quite a few out of print (particularly those I needed for school), usually at the highest employee discount rate, and virtually risk-free, making it more convenient than Amazon. At some point, however, working at Borders became not worth it, and ordering through Amazon became the preferred mode of acquiring necessary books during grad school.

I still occasionally shopped there, but my own shopping experience was noticeably less enjoyable than in the past. Selection was curtailed, bland bestsellers dominated, games and gifts replaced scholarly titles, and it became easier to order books for school online. It was no longer a destination or a treasure house, but a cold, unfeeling, alienating experience.

The shopping experience had eroded over the years. Was nobody watching?

I still miss Borders every rainy Saturday night, like one sometimes yearns for a bygone lover.


  1. Frankly I think the chairs and couches were a mistake. All they did was encourage people to use us as a library, sit and read for free all day, breaking the paperback spines, using hardbacks as TV trays, leaving coffee rings on dust jackets and rendering our merchandise un-sellable.

  2. All true, and made possible by returnable merchandise. The furniture was a nuisance from a staff perspective, but it undoubtedly set Borders apart and was a part of the experience, and even if 90% of the seats were occupied by loafers all day long, the other 10% generated sales that were lost as furnishings were phased out. I would argue that shopworn merchandise (that all retail has to deal with) did not harm Borders nearly as much as the removal of the furniture. It was a series of moves like this, imperceptible independently but having a pervasive effect in the aggregate, that diminished the customer experience over time. In any case, I got to take home two of the fine wooden chairs (made in Slovenia by KLI Logatec) when they reduced the amount of furniture by half. I still use one at my drawing board and the other in my living room.

  3. Our local Borders was at the Riverside Plaza. I use to love to stop by The Plaza once I moved to this side of town. My girlfriend and I would go to dinner, and usually while waiting for a movie, we'd go in to Border's and walk out with about $100 worth of books.....each. We'd put them in the car, then go to our movie and head home. When a new book came out I wanted, I'd order it from Borders because it was closer to home than the Barnes & Noble on the other end of town. When Borders started carrying DVD's and CD's I was like a kid in a candy store. Movies, Music, and Books all in one spot.... and within and easy walk of a Wendy's, an El Torito, a sushi bar, Pickup Stix, and a Trader Joes. Food, knowledge, entertainment.... oh happy times.

    Except that when the Border's went in at The Plaza, all the small independent bookstores started going out of business. First Joseph's Books closed up, then Pandora's Books, the gift shop I work at started shrinking it's book section down as people stopped by our books. But we expanded other sections that were selling like our Teas.

    Now Border's is gone, and the closest big bookstore is a Barnes & Noble on the other side of town. I'd like it if our customers started buying more books again. I'd like to expand our selection to include books on subjects I've always loved like historical skills. We use to carry spinning and weaving supplies, soap making and candle making supplies 15 years ago, but let that go as demand waned.

    All empires rise and fall, be they kingdoms or corporations. Times change, you adapt to survive..... Still, I miss having a burger at Wendy's then going shopping for books on 18th Century Military Campaign Furniture or the new S.M. Stirling Emberverse novel.