I come to bury Borders, not to praise it: Part 2

Antony: But Brutus says he was ambitious;
And Brutus is an honourable man.
He hath brought many captives home to Rome
Whose ransoms did the general coffers fill:
Did this in Caesar seem ambitious?

Julius Caesar, Act III, scene ii

In the fall of 1989 I was back home from Michigan State and trying to figure out what an English literature degree was worth in Flint, Michigan. At the time, it didn’t seem like it had a whole lot of value (I’m not sure that has changed). After looking for options and not finding many, my sister-in-law mentioned that Young & Welshans Books, Flint’s best bookstore, was hiring. Since I’d worked at the Community News Center in East Lansing during college, I was pretty sure this was one job I was qualified to do.

Young & Welshans was a brightly lit, 5,000 square-foot independent that was one of the retail jewels of Flint at the time; it was also a cultural beacon in the city that was losing many of the ones it had. Y&Ws had originally been located in downtown Flint, but as the downtown died and foot traffic dried up, Roger Welshans (a journalist for the Flint Journal in his previous career) and his wife moved the store to Miller Road, Flint’s destination shopping area due to the Genesee Valley Mall.

Like many bookstores at the time, Young & Welshans was staffed by people who loved books. Roger hired me, and I felt right at home.

When I worked on Commie News, the inventory system it employed was on index cards. Cards on shelves behind each title told how many copies had been ordered. When the card was visible, it was time to reorder. The sales history of the book was on the card, and heaven forbid if a customer used a card as a bookmark when browsing and walked out with it. We also had a microfiche reader where we could look up titles and to see if they were in stock at Baker & Taylor or Ingram and could be special ordered. Special orders took ten to fourteen days to arrive.

It was clear from the start that book buying was done differently at Young & Welshans. First, there were actual computers in the store (one at the front desk, one in special ordering, and one in the back room). Second, there was an actual plan for managing ordering and inventory. A plan based on something called Book Inventory Systems (BIS).

I quickly learned that Y&Ws was one of fourteen successful Michigan and Ohio independent bookstores using BIS. Other stores included Borders, Jocundry’s in East Lansing, Schuler Books in East Lansing and Grand Rapids, John Rollins in Kalamazoo, Thackeray’s in Toledo, and Joseph-Beth Booksellers in Ohio. BIS allowed independent booksellers to order and receive books faster than had been possible before its creation. Stores were able to create daily pull lists and pick up the books at the BIS warehouse in Ann Arbor. Even more interesting, BIS was a wholesale business owned by and prototyped at Borders. I figured if I wasn’t working for Borders, this was the next best thing.

After a few months at Y&Ws, the right person quit and I found myself with a new responsibility: driving the company van down to BIS every Tuesday morning to take back returns and pick up our orders. Finally, I had a chance to see behind the curtain.

BIS was set up like any large warehouse. There were boxes of books organized on racks, and people with pull lists filled orders. It seemed like every time I picked up books the whole operation was a little bigger.

When I finally had reason to enter the offices off the warehouse, it was even more exciting. There were buyers in cubicle with stack of books, and all of them seemed terribly busy with important work. There was also a cork board with pictures of the progress of each new Borders store as it was built. And every month or so, there was another store on the board.

The years from 1985 to 1994 were a golden period for independent bookselling, especially in Michigan, with the model Borders provided and the technical advantage BIS offered. There seemed to be big independent stores in all the major cities in the state, most of them powered by BIS. The Michigan Booksellers Association (since folded into the Great Lakes Booksellers Association) was growing, and Roger Welshans was even president for a couple terms during that time.

As a bookseller, it was incredibly powerful to be able to tell customers that you could get them books that weren’t on the shelves, and usually get them in a couple days thanks to BIS. It gave us a step up on the chains (at that time B. Dalton, Waldenbooks, and Little Professor), and made Young & Welshans a destination shopping spot with hundreds of loyal and frequent customers.

Before I left Young & Welshan’s in 1992, the cash registers were replaced with computers and the entire store inventory was tracked through the point of sale. From the front desk, we could tell if a book was on the shelf (or should be) or when we expected it to be in stock. This was another huge change that made bookselling even better.

In 1994, Borders shuttered BIS, or rather rolled it into the growing Borders chain growth. The independents who had relied on BIS for their business infrastructure had the benefit of a short-term non-compete agreement, but in five years many were closed or having trouble competing when Borders eventually rolled into their towns.

Young & Welshans was one of the stores that couldn’t compete. The store had expanded and added a cafe around the time I left, which I suspect but a strain on the cash flow at the wrong time. Every time I was back in town and visited the inventory would be a little less, the open shelves a little more. It didn’t help that when Borders put their store in on the other side of Miller Road a half mile away, one of the long-time managers jumped ship.

The model that Borders offered through BIS made many good independent bookstores into great bookstores. And for many years, Borders was able to expand the BIS model and give communities throughout the country a wonderful bookstore where there had not been one before, this time with the Borders name on the sign instead of a local business.

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