Column: Saying Goodbye to Borders

Ann Arbor bookstore played key role in career of aspiring writer

It’s tough for any sports writer to get a book published – but it was a lot easier with a friendly bookstore on your side, from start to finish.

John U. Bacon

John U. Bacon

It wasn’t that long ago that if you wanted to buy a book, there was no Kindle or Nook or – or the Internet. There weren’t even big-chain bookstores. You had to go to one of those narrow stores in mini-malls that sold paperback best-sellers and thrillers and romance novels.

But then the Borders brothers changed all that. They decided to go big, opening a two-story shop on State Street in Ann Arbor. They stocked almost everything, they gave customers room to relax and read, and they hired people who weren’t just clerks, but readers.

When I applied for a job there in college, they didn’t just hand me an application, but a test on literature – which I failed.

But if they wouldn’t let me sell books there, they still let me buy them, so perhaps it was just as well. I bought everything from Mark Twain’s “Innocents Abroad” to Kurt Vonnegut’s “Slaughterhouse Five.” Typically, I’d walk in for one book, and walk out with four – an hour later. I spent over a thousand dollars a year there, then a few hundred more on book shelves.

When Borders became a national chain, we Ann Arborites took an unearned pride in seeing the rest of the country love it as much as we did.

But Borders conceded the Internet to, then seemed to embark on a strategy designed not to create a stirring comeback, but a slow retreat. Finally, Borders announced it was going out of business this summer.

This week I visited my local Border’s store, Number #1, right downtown, one last time. I toured my favorite sections, literature and history, but also stopped by the children’s department, where I bought Dr. Seuss books for my nieces years ago, one of whom is now in college. I visited the travel stacks, where I planned trips to Turkey and Thailand, Spain and South America. I also picked up books to teach me just enough of those languages to get me in trouble, but not quite enough to get me out of it. I must have bought the cheaper ones.

But I didn’t need to get on a plane to go places. Pick up a good book – completely portable, no plugs or batteries needed – and you can go anywhere you want, even back in time, in just minutes.

In 1989, at the original store’s reference section, I picked up a copy of “Writer’s Market,” because my teacher told me it was the bible for freelance writers. I saved it. In the back pages I listed all the publications where I sent my articles, and which ones rejected them. That first year, all but one did. Thank you, Motor Trend. I bought 10 copies of that issue at Borders, too.

But I kept buying “Writer’s Market”and sending out my stories. After a decade, I published my first book. I wrote my second book in Borders café, where I also listened to readings by my friends, and the famous.

A few years ago the Borders in downtown Ann Arbor sold more copies of my last book, on Bo Schembechler, than any store in the country. I spent hours signing them, and the staff became colleagues, even friends.

During my last visit, one of them said, “Hey John, can I help you find anything?”

“No, thanks,” I said, then waved my hand over the entire store. “I just came to say goodbye to an old friend.”

I shook his hand. “Thanks for everything.”

He nodded, but kept a stiff upper lip, and walked off to help someone else.

About the author: John U. Bacon is the author of the upcoming “Three and Out: Rich Rodriguez and the Michigan Wolverines in the Crucible of College Football,” due out Oct. 25. You can pre-order the book from Nicola’s Books in Ann Arbor or on

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  1. August 12, 2011 at 1:53 pm | permalink

    This is one of the nicest meditations on what Borders has meant to us that I’ve seen.

    One point I haven’t seen remarked upon is that Borders greatly expanded the discounting concept for books (I believe that Books-a-Million or a similar chain launched it). At one time, every hardback at Borders was automatically 10% below list, and best-sellers often 30% below list. This put a great stress on independent booksellers. Amazon then took that model and drove everyone into the ground with it. So one might say that the seeds of Borders’ destruction were in its early success from this ploy.

    But I’ll miss it.

  2. By John
    August 12, 2011 at 6:07 pm | permalink

    I’m going to miss being able to browse Borders, but I find it interesting that even in their going-out-of-business sale, they can’t compete with online companies for price.