One of the major articles, entitled "Borders Grows Up," reviews the recent ups-and-downs of the now 33-year-old icon of Ann Arbor bookselling. As virtually anyone reading this blog would know, Borders was founded (and located exclusively for many years) in Ann Arbor. In the mid-80s, Borders expanded, initially to some Detroit suburbs and then nationally. The article delves into issues such as competition with Barnes and Noble, competition from internet sales, and the healing process from last year's strike at the flagship Ann Arbor store.
Historically, Borders did a lot to cultivate a cerebral image, most notably making its workers pass a test (which, according to the recent Observer article, was "dropped years ago"). George Will wrote the following in a 1991 Washington Post article:
"Reading the torrent of essays about the end of reading, and the glut of books about the death of the book, leaves little time for savoring the significance of Borders bookstores, which are flourishing.
There are 14 of them so far. The first was in Ann Arbor, Mich. The one here in Rockville [Maryland] is typical. It has more than 100,000 titles, 1.3 million volumes and a staff who when asked `Where is `Billy Budd'?' will not reply, `He doesn't work here.'
No one works here who cannot pass a quiz featuring questions like, `In what subject areas would you look for books by or about Jean Piaget, Gustav Klimt, Dorothy Sayers, Karen Horney, Ludwig Wittgenstein'? `Who wrote `Tin Drum'? `Native Son'? `Where the Wild Things Are'?' Non-readers need not apply at Borders, which unlike lots of supposed bookstores sells neither games nor globes nor garden hoses.. . .
A better way of doing business in books began 20 years ago with the Border [sic, it should be Borders] brothers, University of Michigan graduate students, Tom, an English major, and Lewis, a computer wiz. Their idea was to use modern information systems to make possible, meaning profitable, small-volume purchases of many titles rather than large-volume purchases of titles that will sell at a high velocity."
I love that "Billy Budd" quote and am glad to be able to have found a reference to it on the web. Many parts of Will's article are obviously dated, including the test and the number of stores. Heck, today's Borders stores in the L.A. and Chicago areas alone might come close to numbering 14 (those are where I do most of my Borders visiting; my current home of Lubbock, Texas doesn't have one). I also, of course, love to visit the Ann Arbor flagship store, but I haven't been back since 2002.
The Observer article also provides an update on the Borders brothers: Tom now lives in Austin, Texas, and Louis is in Silicon Valley.
One quote in the Observer article really hits the nail on the head, in my view, regarding why Borders has been so successful:
"The saving factor for Borders, [its CEO] says, was that people still like to come to bookstores to browse."
. . .
In my May 14 entry on this blog (May archives), I wrote about Ann Arbor's jazz scene, including a mention of the Bird of Paradise club. We learn from the September 2004 Observer that, after 20 years, "The Bird" is no more, a casualty of financial difficulties. Here's an article on the club's farewell from the Ann Arbor News.