Saying goodbye to an old friend

Aug 12, 2011

It wasn’t that long ago that if you wanted to buy a book, there was no Kindle or Nook or amazon.com – or even the internet.  There weren’t even big-chain book stores.  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 place 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 hand me an application but a test on literature. I failed. But if I couldn’t 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 Hemingway’s Nick Adams stories, from Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” to Jack 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 amazon, 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 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 in trouble, but not enough to get 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 – and you can go anywhere you want, even back in time, in just minutes. At the original store’s reference section, I once picked up Writer’s Market, because my teacher told me it was the bible for free-lance writers, back in 1989. I saved it. In the back pages I listed all the publications I had sent my articles, and which ones rejected them.  That first year, all but one did. Thank you, Motor Trend. I bought ten copies of that issue at Border’s, 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 friends, and the famous. A few years ago the Borders in downtown Ann Arbor sold more copies of my fourth 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?”

“No, thanks,” I said.  “I just came to say goodbye to an old friend I shook his hand.  “Thanks for everything

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

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