It seems dispiriting to think that the incoming freshman class and future generations of students at the University will not have Borders bookstore on their campus. To those of us who have several years in Ann Arbor under our belts, there is no question downtown will feel incomplete without the sprawling bookstore that was the best place to study, meet or just comfortably wander around for hours.
As Borders faces its final days, nostalgia pervades the air surrounding 612 E. Liberty St. It’s hard for students, faculty and Ann Arbor retailers to pass those enormous telltale clearance signs without thinking about what the bookstore has meant over the past few decades.
Hal Brannan worked with Borders for over 20 years, the last 13 of which were at store No. 1, the downtown Ann Arbor location.
Among Brannan’s early memories with the company is receiving his first profit-sharing check from the Borders brothers. At the time, in the ’80s, Tom and Louis Borders were sharing their business profits with employees via paycheck since the company was still small. The Borders brothers first opened Borders Book Shop in Ann Arbor in 1971, but in the following decades it would become part of Kmart Corporation and would include Waldenbooks and another bookstore chain called Brentano’s.
“That was like, ‘oh my gosh,’ ” Brannan said, remembering that first profit-sharing check. “I was part of the Borders family. That was when I felt I’d latched onto something incredible.”
Brannan fostered a true sense of community with his coworkers in everything from holiday parties to forming a union in the early 2000s.
“I always tried to be fair and open and honest,” he explained. “The kind of people that work for Borders responded well to that, so I was able to continue working at Borders until I could see that it was time to … say goodbye.”
It was that very sense of community that drew Luis Paez, a Borders employee of 11 years, to the Ann Arbor store.
“The atmosphere was quite energizing,” Paez said. “I wanted to work at the base of the corporation, particularly at store No. 1, (the store) being a nerve here in Ann Arbor of social, economic and intellectual life.”
For Andrea Graef, storeowner of This & That on E. Liberty St., Borders represented a constant.
“One of the reasons I picked this spot (for the store) was because Borders was across the street from me,” she said. “I use Borders as a place to relax, walk around and look at books.”
She added: “They had the authors come in and you could talk to them about their books or the events that they would hold over there, or just sit on the floor and read a story to your child or grandchild, you know, go in there and introduce them to books. I’ve been taking my little granddaughter. At six months old we started her, sitting on the floor reading a book … she’s almost four.”
On a larger scale, this reflects Graef’s sadness over the state of the book industry.
“I for one am not into the electronic book,” she said. “I like to hold books, I like to hold newspapers. Maybe it’s old school, but that’s the way I want it. I want to go and buy books or get them from the library. I think of my granddaughter and I think, what’s her life going to be like if everything goes to electronic?”
Graef believes Borders was unique as a local company that grew into a national corporation, but that it will be especially missed in its Ann Arbor home as a pivotal feature of daily life.
“It’s the biggest anchor we have downtown here,” she said. “Already I can see the changes in the neighborhood. The business is down … at night because a lot of people used to be in there. I’m open until 10 so I’ve seen a drastic decrease already.”
Store No. 1 also played host to a variety of celebrities and authors, including comedian John Hodgman, actor John Travolta and musicians John Mayer and James Taylor.
“Borders played … a vital role in this area, not just to the Ann Arbor community but to the surrounding towns and cities, I would say to Southeast Michigan,” Paez said. “It’s a center for gathering and exchanging ideas about the literature, whether that was journals or magazines or newspapers or books or any other kind of media.”
Paez is not only a Borders employee, but a historian now working on a book about the store and its history. For him, it was an “engrossing experience” to work at store No. 1 and get to know people and groups within the corporation.
He feels the impact of Borders ultimately lies in these communities and the lives it has touched across generations.
“It’s a huge hole in people’s lives, I think it will be,” Graef said. “I think people don’t realize it yet because the door hasn’t quite closed, but I think they will.
“It was a place where you could go and lose yourself. Even before the café was there and you sat down and had a cup of coffee or something … you could just go in there and shut out the rest of the world and lose yourself in a wonderful place.”
Brannan also enjoyed the distinct world within the store.
“I remember a lot of good discussion with customers about current books and current events, and how rapidly the book world was able to produce books on what was going on,” Brannan said.
As uncertain as things look in the world of book retail, Brennan knows the impact of Borders is unquestionable.
“Borders has put an awful lot of books into people’s homes,” he said. “That’ll be a lasting legacy; our books in people’s houses that will get handed down to generations or taken to used book dealers and read again by somebody else. People are going to be finding their Borders bookmarks and receipts and books long into the future.”