By Micah Akuezue, UCLA
This article isn’t so much about a beloved, fallen bookstore, but rather, fittingly enough, a literary term: juxtaposition. On an early Friday morning, after a night of finishing Erik Larson’s In the Garden of Beasts, I was greeted by a farewell email from Borders. I forced myself to read the letter—twice, even—before reality set in: my beloved bookstore and Ann Arbor landmark is closing its doors, eerily mimicking how one closes a book and places it on their shelf to collect dust.
Perhaps feeling a certain melancholy in the wake of this bad news isn’t as justified as a loyal Borders shopper might make it out to be. After all, we’ve been inundated with story after story about how Borders has hemorrhaged money in consecutive years, wasn’t too adept in realizing how important the Internet actually is, and even failed in releasing some kind of e-book reader, like Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and even Apple. It’s true—ever since Borders expanded to a ballooning amount of stores worldwide, the business plan it had wasn’t exactly working, a failure that manifested itself late last year with its declaration of bankruptcy.
But is that what we’re all ready to assign Borders to? Just another failed business, in an already difficult market experiencing changes due to the advent of the digital age? Can we really miss a business (a bookstore, no less) that some, at the same time, say amounts to nothing more than bad management, a bad business plan, and bad numbers? It’s very difficult to miss something that wasn’t worth the paper one could write its name on, and with the loss of Borders, our society is losing something worth much, much more than the sum of its parts.
With the farewell letter arriving in every Borders Rewards Member’s inbox came the invitation to their Going out of Business Sale, and just like any vulture, I and hundreds of others were persuaded to attend. Making my way around the busy streets of Ann Arbor, with the crowds of people enjoying the Art Fair, I made it to the enormous flagship store on the corner of Liberty and Maynard, mere yards from the original store opened by two University of Michigan undergraduates 40 years ago. Here was the place where I got my start in political theory, loading up on books from Plato and Aristotle, Hobbes and Hume, and the like. I wasn’t alone in reminiscing about Borders, either. There were many conversations abound starting with the “I remember whens” that hearken back to a time when, yes, books were an important thread that kept the fabric of a well-read community together, especially considering to what extent Ann Arbor is a college town.
No, day one of the closing sale wasn’t like any other closing sale I’ve been to, and was even distinctly different from the one back in March, for we knew there would be something called Borders even after the handful of closing stores were vacated. Now we know that, in a few months’ time, Borders will no longer exist, except as a figment of our memories, of which we only have old Borders Rewards cards to remind us of. As busy as the downtown store was, there was a feeling of dread and sadness in the air, despite the 40 percent sale on the books that filled up the store.
In retrospect, it didn’t feel like a closing sale at all, but rather a viewing of the body. Even part of my own interest in paying a visit to the store (to which I’m no stranger) wasn’t so much to get a book or two on-sale as it was to confirm what was actually happening. Is Borders seriously going to close? For good? The conversations I overheard were similar to ones you might hear at a funeral: how much Borders has meant to communities all over the country, questions about what Ann Arbor would do without Borders, and the like. Whether we, or Borders, realize it or not, it was and is very important to reading communities everywhere, a fact that no one really seemed to appreciate until now, just as dead artists aren’t famous until they’re, well, dead.
Everyone knows that, at the Art Fair, the art and the food are overpriced. One is better off paying $8 at Wendy’s in the Union than $18 for a “philly cheesesteak” and a small order of fries—with no drink. So why do so many people flock to Ann Arbor every summer, in sweltering heat and tropical-like humidity, to attend the show in the middle of the week? It’s the social aspect—the feeling and sense of community—the appreciation of the fine arts that compel us to come and enjoy an outdoor art fair, which is annually under constant threat of heavy rain (and sometimes hail). How ironic is it for Borders, an Ann Arbor original, to close, while Ann Arbor hosts the Art Fair? Very.
And therein lies the prevailing problem with Borders, and what ultimately brought it down. It wasn’t that it didn’t release an e-book reader soon enough, or adopt an online presence when Barnes & Nobles did. It wasn’t even the fact that it relied on Amazon for it’s online sales for eight years (even I had a bookmark in my browser that read “Amazon/Borders”). And it definitely isn’t that the “book industry is changing rapidly,” as some like to parrot. If that were true, then wouldn’t other bookstores be close to extinction as well? I like to believe bookstores to be more complex creatures than that. Borders isn’t a victim of market dynamics or the obvious aforementioned business decisions, although they didn’t help.
Rather, it expanded in the way most companies do: with an eye toward profit rather than an eye toward its own nature. A small, privately-owned, family business at first, it became a corporation more concerned with international presence generating profits, rather than maintaining and improving its identity as a bookstore—a place where members of a community gather together to share ideas, interests, enlightening conversation, and discussion over the latest controversial book or author making the rounds.
It’s much deeper than waiting for the latest installment of a wizard or vampire saga; it’s where people gathered for the appreciation of the art of writing in its own right. It represented that moment where a young boy or girl stares at shelves seemingly hundreds of times their size, saying to themselves, “someday, that’ll be me.” Somewhere along the way, Borders’ lost that feeling and focus, and eventually became too big to not fail (as painful as it is for me to write that). The real, cruelest irony, then, is that Borders failed to capitalize on its very strength, its very advantage. And that’s why it’s closing.
Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas has observed that a successful retail experience depends not on selling stuff, but on the feeling it can engender from its patrons and customers, as well as the atmosphere it presents and community it fosters. Apple Stores, for example, barely look to have any merchandise, and yet they get high traffic and take in a high amount of sales. Borders, although slightly different in nature (but not necessarily in objective), was not able to do this. And yet, Borders has 399 stores in the U.S. (after the closures this past spring). Apple has 331. Worldwide. It’s not shocking, either, that most people think an iPad or some similar gadget will replace the printed word.
Like any good attendant at a funeral, however, I don’t want to focus on the death of a dear friend, but would rather celebrate its life and what it’s given to us for all of these years. However, I can’t help but think about what could have, or should have, been. But isn’t that exactly what a good book does? Get you to think about primary characters, their movements and motivations, why they made certain decisions, and why certain events happened they way they did? In a sense, good books never truly end, but rather live on in our own imaginations and memories, just as Borders is going to have to.