Magazine | August 15, 2011, Issue

An End to Borders

In which the topic is, not national frontiers, but book and music shops

‘There’s no crying in baseball!” says the manager in A League of Their Own, the 1992 movie about female baseball players. There’s no crying in a free-market economy either. You either adapt or die. And Borders, apparently not adapting, has died. There will be no more Borders bookstores.

You’re not supposed to cry, and I’m not, but I might have shed half a tear, when I heard the news. The reason is mainly personal and sentimental. The original Borders was in my hometown, Ann Arbor, Mich. The store was founded in 1971 by the Borders brothers, Tom and Louis, who were students at the University of Michigan. We all went into that store. The selection was enormous, even exciting, and they would let you read, as I recall.

The staff was renowned for its knowledge, although whether that renown was justified, I can’t tell you. I think they were somewhat arrogant and snotty. I also think that most customers kind of liked it — the way people like waitresses in New England chowder houses who bark at you.

I was a little tickled — there’s a Michigan word! — when the store went national. When it became a chain. Sometime in the mid-1990s, I went into a Borders in Washington, D.C., the city in which I was living. On the wall was a photo of the original Borders staff. I recognized most of them. Got a little pang.

I also remember reading that Borders had been acquired by Kmart. That, too, tickled me. The Borders people thought themselves so cool, and here they were being acquired by the uncoolest company in America — a company whose name was synonymous with downmarket. Made me laugh, I swear.

In any case, an Ann Arbor company had made good. “Can there any good thing come out of Nazareth?” Can a great business venture come out of Ann Arbor, one of the small citadels of the Left, a place not exactly friendly to enterprise? Oh, yes. Borders came out of Ann Arbor, and so did Domino’s Pizza, which is still selling pizzas.

Now that I’ve gotten a little political on you, let me mention a piece that appeared in these pages in September 2004: “Little Suppressors: Dealing with the bookstore clerk who hates you.” I should explain the title. While in Ann Arbor, I didn’t work at Borders, but I worked, briefly, at a bookstore called The Little Professor. Our manager refused to put out some conservative magazines. (On the whole, he was a very nice guy.) My friend Eddie came up with a new name for the store: “The Little Suppressor.”

Why did I write about this topic in September 2004? There was a book called Unfit for Command, by John O’Neill, a Vietnam vet. It attacked Sen. John Kerry, who was the Democratic presidential nominee. There were stories around the country that bookstore clerks were refusing to display or sell the book. And Borders employees were telling their stories on their union website. This remark was typical: “We’re ‘finding’ that most of the few copies we’re getting are damaged and need to be sent back. So sad. Too bad, Bushies!”

#page#You can say this about buying books over the Internet: You don’t have to deal with a clerk who snarks at you about your politics. Did you ever have the experience of buying a conservative book or magazine and getting attitude from the clerk? It was no fun, really.

But let me return to the Ann Arbor of yore, and a particular record shop. I think it was a CD shop later. Do we still have CD shops? Not in my neighborhood (which I’ll get to in a minute). I am thinking of Ann Arbor’s Liberty Music, one of the great stores of its kind. It was famous all over the world. Like Borders, it had a vast selection and a knowledgeable — unquestionably knowledgeable — staff. Also a slightly quirky one, like all great staffs, right?

The shop had listening booths, so you could try things out, before buying. Say you had $5 (or whatever it was) for a Brahms Second. Would you get Klemperer, Walter, or Karajan, Bernstein, Solti, or Szell? You could stay in the booth for as long as you were unhassled. I was always a little nervous. Adding to the nervousness was this: You didn’t want to scratch the record.

Liberty Music has gone by the wayside, needless to say. But, hang on, I see by the Internet that it still exists in a quaint form: It is a mail-order business, “centered on classical 78’s.”

I like progress as much as the next guy — making me a progressive, you see — but I’ve never been an “early adopter”: someone who early adopts a new product or technology. I was one of the last to buy a CD player. In fact, I bought a CD before I bought a CD player. I spotted this particular CD in a store, and I thought I should snap it up, lest it become “nla” — no longer available. It was a historic reissue. And I knew I’d have a CD player sooner or later.

The disc, by the way, was a collection of duets sung by Elisabeth Schwarzkopf and Irmgard Seefried. As you might guess, you can go to the Internet right now and download it in about two seconds.

I was pretty much the last person to switch to a metal driver, too, and to other metal “woods.” I thought they were cheating. So did Jack Nicklaus. But eventually he switched, and I did too. If Nicklaus was relenting, everyone had to. Would I have been late to switch from hickory shafts as well? I hope not, but I fear so.

Few things are easier or more pleasurable than buying books over the Internet. Click, click, click — bingo. Couple of months ago, I learned about memoirs written by Paul Gore-Booth, a British diplomat, in 1974. The book has long been out of print. But thanks to AbeBooks.com — one of the greatest things since the wheel — I had it in about a week.

Equally easy and pleasurable is the buying of CDs. Or the downloading of music that would be on CDs, if we needed CDs (or audiocassettes, or LPs). But to hell with buying: What about music that’s free? Several weeks ago, I wrote a piece on the Russian composer Rodion Shchedrin. I asked his “people” to send me an assortment of CDs. These recordings did not reach me in time. But no problem: I found pretty much all the music I desired via YouTube — an invention so great, it dusts AbeBooks, and almost the wheel.

#page#The Internet is great when you know what you want. But I must say I like shops — liked shops — for browsing. I’m told you can browse on the Internet, and I’m sure it’s true. But I haven’t quite learned how to do it. I do know this: You can click on a link to sample a CD before buying it. That’s the modern equivalent of those listening booths. (No scratching.)

Earlier, I mentioned the neighborhood I live in: It’s the lower Upper West Side of Manhattan, to use a term I believe I coined. Recently, we lost the gigantic Barnes & Noble that sat on the corner of 66th and Broadway. Some of my neighbors think it’s the end of civilization. Of course, they thought it was the end of civilization when Barnes & Noble came to these parts in the 1980s. Ewww, a chain! It was threatening the beloved local establishment Shakespeare & Co. — an establishment not so beloved that the locals kept it in business.

A few years ago, we lost our gigantic Tower Records, which sat across Broadway from the recently defunct Barnes & Noble. These two stores constituted a browser’s paradise. You could flit across the street, gorging yourself on books and music. People would spill out of a concert or opera at Lincoln Center, and go to Tower to buy a recording of music they had just heard. You met, or at least noticed, some interesting types in these stores. Now you bowl alone, so to speak: tapping and clicking at your computer.

And the Internet is not necessarily the Speed King. Ordering by computer is fast, of course. But you know how you can get your book or CD faster? By popping into the store and walking out with the thing. Say you need a gift, to take to your dinner hosts. If the Internet is your only option, you have to order well ahead.

Look, I’m not a nostalgist. Let me share with you an e-mail I received from my mother, about an hour ago. (She has no idea I’m writing about Borders, and I quote her without permission, of course.) She lives in the woods outside of Ann Arbor. She writes, “Quite annoyed at people mourning the demise of badly managed Borders.” Mother is blunt. Once, she was asked why she didn’t want to go to a particular restaurant, much praised. She said, “The food is bad, the carpet is dirty, and the waitresses are surly.” Anyway, in her e-mail, she continues, “Our public libraries are magnificent. Even my hokey district one has latte, etc., and will find any book you want in a day or two.”

No, I’m not a nostalgist. But neither am I a “Couéist,” as Bill Buckley liked to say: someone who believes that things are getting better every day. Some things do, some things don’t. There are young people — not all that young anymore, come to think of it — who have never held a newspaper or a magazine in their hands. They have read online. Pretty soon, there will be young people, and not-so-young people, who have never held a book: They have Kindled.

I think this new age for media is a bonanza, a multifaceted gift to mankind. But you’ll understand, I bet, if I offer one cheer for bricks and mortar, and quirky staffs, and popping in and out. You’ll understand, too, if I shed a tear — half a tear — for the dear old Borders Book Shop.

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