I've settled into a nice Thanksgiving routine. That includes:
1) My personal pilgrimage to Michigan Stadium to watch my beloved Wolverines play their last home game of the year;
2) A Facebook-fueled reunion with at least one high school or college friend. Almost all these meetings start with a search for interesting conversation, but I leave with respect and admiration for those who stayed in Michigan, fighting through extraordinarily challenging economic circumstances;
3) A feast with family, filled with kids screaming about who plays with which toys and grown-ups screaming about which political party is more wrong than the other.
But there is one difference about this holiday. I won't be visiting one of my favorite haunts today. This Friday, without Borders Books, is truly a Black one for me.
To some of you, Borders Books during the '80s and '90s was a colossus that threatened your friendly, neighborhood bookstore. However, for me and many of my fellow Ann Arborites, Borders was the friendly, neighborhood bookstore. It was a Michigan-made business that used no steel or pizza dough, yet succeeded and thrived. While Ann Arbor can take credit for helping deliver Americans everything from the polio vaccine to Domino's Pizza, Borders seemed different. I imagined Borders was created by the characters from The Big Chill after they listened to Gordon Gekko's pep talk in Wall Street. Certainly Borders was a money-making enterprise, but it seemed to be one of noble purpose: to make every book you could ever imagine -- be it a literary classic, a how-to guide, a self-help manual, or a coffee table book -- just a credit card swipe away from your bookshelf. It was both radical and entrepreneurial at the time.
Legend has it that an innovative computerized inventory system enabled Louis and Tom Borders to gain a unique strategic advantage. As I understood it, they could fill their shelves with lots of titles, with the right amount of copies to meet patrons' demands. But I never really cared too much about the details, just as long as they could pay the rent on their store -- the perfect waiting place for high school classmates, and later U of M buddies, before heading to the movie theatre a few doors down on State Street. It was one day killing time at Borders when I was tempted by a murder mystery cover that intrigued me too much to wait for the big screen adaption. That fingerprint on Scott Turow's Presumed Innocent drew me to glance at the description inside and then to the cashiers' counter. That was the gateway novel that led me to buy suspenseful thrillers by John Grisham, Thomas Harris, and, particularly, Stieg Larsson.
I'm by no means an avid reader, but Borders actually piqued my interest in trying to read more and to read things I wouldn't have ever considered before seeing them there. I didn't go there just to find a book. You can do that on Amazon or at Costco. I went to Borders because there books could find me.
Ask yourself this: in an era of big box chains made to satisfy our common interests; is there any merchant that offers you an opportunity to discover some highly personal "like" of your own? Can you count on department stores to launch the next "wow" book, like The Corrections or The Kite Runner or Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone? Do you really believe the latest blow your mind book by the next great writer no one has ever heard of is stuffed in the three aisles between the blenders and the blue jeans?
Yes, I know that Barnes and Noble and Books-A-Million are still out there, but I'm not ready to embrace another megabookstore yet. I'm not convinced that they will survive. And as I battle with a new, 21st century mutation of PTSD -- pre-traumatic store closing disorder -- I'm swearing off anymore large purchases driven partially by the hope that I could be the one that saves a dead store walking.
Borders died in an ironic twist only a novelist could come up with. Once a technological trailblazer, the succession of managers who followed the Borders brothers failed to keep up with changing times. Someone could put out a great book chronicling the rise and fall of a business that seemed to get it all right for a while, before they got it all wrong. I just wonder, if this book ever does come out, perhaps with a cover of the old Ann Arbor store I remember, will there be a place where I can stumble upon it?
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