I come to bury Borders, not to praise it: Part 1

Antony: Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears;
I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.
The evil that men do lives after them;
The good is oft interred with their bones;
So let it be with Caesar. The noble Brutus
Hath told you Caesar was ambitious:
If it were so, it was a grievous fault;
And grievously hath Caesar answer’d it.
Here, under leave of Brutus and the rest, —
For Brutus is an honorable man;
So are they all, all honorable men, —
Come I to speak in Caesar’s funeral.
He was my friend, faithful and just to me:
But Brutus says he was ambitious;
And Brutus is an honorable man.

Julius Caesar, Act III, scene ii

As we are in the final liquidation of Borders remaining stores, much has been written about how this national bookstore chain juggernaut ended up in bankruptcy and liquidation. This is not a post about why, but rather a look at what was lost on the way to this ultimate demise. Replace Caesar with Borders above, and I will tell you, “The noble Literary Pundits / Hath told you Borders was ambitious: / If it were so, it was a grievous fault; / And grievously hath Borders answer’d it.” I will also say this, “Borders was my friend, faithful and just to me,” at least for many years.

The first time I remember entering the doors of the original flagship Borders in Ann Arbor, MI, was during my college years, the best I can remember the summer of 1988. I was an English literature major at Michigan State University, heading into my senior year in the fall, working at the East Lansing Community (Commie) News while hanging out with other writers, poets, and artistes. We had organized local readings and writing groups and thought we were at the beginning of what would surely be auspicious careers as writers, editors, and publishers.

East Lansing had it’s fair share of good bookstores at that time. There was Jocundry’s, Curious Book Shop, and Schuler Books up by Meridian Mall. (It was only a few years later that I discovered the connection between Jocundry’s, Schuler Books, and Borders, but that will have to wait for Part 2.) Between these stores and Commie News, I could find most of what I wanted to read, including almost everything Bukowski had written. The two stores in East Lansing were “cozy” in size, and Schuler Books was a car or bus ride away, so there were still gaps in what was easily attainable.

One day that summer, our crew decided we should all pile in a car and go to Ann Arbor to hit the bookstores. It may have been during the Ann Arbor Street Art Fair, though I am no longer certain of that. I know we hit the Dawn Treader Book Shop and a couple other used stores. The biggest revelation, however, was the Borders store on State Street. It was literally like walking into an English major’s fantasy. There were books upon books upon books, all new and clean and fresh.

One of the first things I noticed was that past the tables near the front doors were low-slung bookshelves full of poetry books. This bears repeating: the first shelves of books after entering the store and passing the front of store displays were poetry books. Rows and rows of poetry books. I would guess there were thirty feet of bookshelves devoted just to poetry. I was at a loss to think of one coveted volume that did not reside on those shelves. It was simply amazing to me, a book person. The store had clearly been merchandised by a madman.

I don’t know how long we browsed Borders’ aisles that day, but it was hours. I left with copies of Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s A Coney Island of the Mind, Gregory Corso’s Elegiac Feelings American, Allen Ginsberg’s Kaddish, and others.

The Borders employees of that time were all cut from what seemed like similar cloth. They were whip smart, deeply knowledgeable about books, and slightly arrogant. In other words, they didn’t belong in retail, but they belonged in Borders. And they would help you find just what you were looking for; it just might cost you a slice of your dignity.

Borders was a bookstore that made me think: I want to work here. I want to be one of these people. I’m not sure there is a stronger statement a retail store can make to its customers.

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