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Farewell to Borders

April 7, 2012

Christina writes: My regrets for the demise of Borders Books are not quite of the same order as those for the fast-disappearing secondhand bookshops and for the independent stores that have succumbed to online competition from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and to a lesser degree Borders itself. But I have many memories associated with some of the Borders stores I’ve visited. Here I wanted to write ‘vivid’ memories: when discussing one with Wayne, however, he thought that my description of it applied to a different store. I disagreed. Of course, chain bookstores often have a generic similarity, though this was less true of Borders than it is of Barnes & Noble.

In the early 1990s, while Wayne and I were still living on opposite sides of the Atlantic, we both flew into Chicago’s O’Hare airport at the start of a trip to do Tolkien research at the Marion E. Wade Center at Wheaton College, outside of Chicago, and in the Archives at Marquette University in Milwaukee. By the time I arrived, Wayne had already collected a rental car, but it was too early to check in at the hotel where we were staying, so he took me to a Borders on the way to fill in time. I remember noticing displays of recently published fantasy fiction, titles which had not yet reached Forbidden Planet in London, and some very attractive picture books in the children’s section on a kind of mezzanine. Some time later, that Borders moved into the nearby Oak Brook mall, which we visited on one or two occasions after I moved to the U.S.A. I never found the new store as attractive, perhaps because by then I had visited many other branches of the chain and was accustomed to their stock.

A year or so later, Wayne and I stayed for a few days in Bethesda, Maryland (north of Washington, D.C.), which at that time had many good secondhand bookshops, but we also found time to visit the White Flint mall where another Borders outlet impressed me; and it was there that we first had a meal in a Cheesecake Factory restaurant. On that occasion, we had a very good burger with freshly made vegetable chips (U.K. crisps). We also went to the White Flint Borders soon after the publication of our J.R.R. Tolkien: Artist and Illustrator, where it had been arranged that we give a talk. Conditions weren’t ideal, since the chairs were set out in the midst of the store, making it difficult for customers who wanted to look at the books shelved in that particular area, and our slides of Tolkien’s artwork didn’t display well because the lighting couldn’t be dimmed.

We were surprised to find that Borders didn’t shelve Artist and Illustrator with books on Tolkien, but rather with art in general. It seemed stupid to have Tolkien sandwiched between Titian and Turner, and we knew that Tolkien fans wouldn’t think of looking for our book there. Some of our friends told us that every time they went into a Borders they would surreptitiously move Artist and Illustrator into the Tolkien section. We understand that Borders had a rigid corporate policy, applicable to every store, about the choice of stock and its placement. They tried to apply the same America-based policy even when they opened branches in Britain: I remember seeing a newspaper report of Borders shops with piles of books on baseball but none on cricket! I also noticed that British branches of Borders sometimes sold Ballantine editions of Tolkien’s works, which are licensed for sale only in the U.S.A.

I visited Borders’ flagship store in Ann Arbor, Michigan, several times since Wayne has family who live nearby, and on early visits was quite impressed by both the music and the history departments. The latter was still good on my last visit in 2009, but the stock of CDs gradually dwindled as DVDs became popular. In 2004, the Mythopoeic Society held its annual Mythcon in Ann Arbor, and on the first evening there was a reception in Borders. Wayne and I wondered if it would be in a private room, but it was held in the coffee bar area, closed to the general public but only lightly fenced off, so there we all were, drinking and talking while browsers wandered around the bookshelves.

The nearest Borders to our home in Williamstown was an hour’s drive away, in New York State, near Albany in the Wolf Road shopping area. Almost directly opposite from it was a Barnes & Noble. I got to know both shops very well. I’ve always preferred live theatre, opera, and ballet (at least before so many productions became perverse in the hands of egotistic producers) to films or television, whereas Wayne (before DVDs and widescreen TV) was a frequent filmgoer, and because of the poor quality of the seating and screens at our local cinemas we usually made the longer drive to a complex near Wolf Road. Occasionally I saw a film with Wayne, but often I chose to spend my time in Borders and Barnes & Noble looking at books and CDs, or doing any shopping I wanted in the adjacent mall.

The Wolf Road Borders originally had a very good music section, though as elsewhere it gradually contracted. Since my main interest is opera, I was very annoyed when on one visit I discovered that Borders had decided to put the opera CDs in locked glass cabinets, and one had the trouble of finding an attendant to open them. Later I found locked cases in other Borders locations also. Of course, operas are usually more expensive than other CDs, as most extend across at least two discs and include a libretto, housed in a box or slipcase, but I thought it very unlikely that opera-goers were also obsessive shoplifters. Only the spines of the CD cases or boxes were visible in the locked cabinets, most giving only the title of the opera and sometimes the conductor; cast information was invariably on the back! I’m sure that sales must have dropped under the circumstances.

The last Borders to impinge itself on my memory was discovered only by chance in 1997. Wayne and I had driven to Boston to replace my temporary green card with a permanent one, and as usual, combined our trip with visits to secondhand bookshops. But we lost our way in late afternoon and by chance came upon the Chestnut Hill mall, which housed both a Borders and a Cheesecake Factory. We were very hungry, and that was the first time we enjoyed our favourite Cheesecake Factory offering: orange chicken. (I think we’ve eaten cheesecake only once at a Cheesecake Factory, as we never have any room left after the orange chicken and the lovely bread they serve before the meal.) It was also about that time that we discovered hotel ‘park and fly’ packages which would allow us to take the day flight on our then more frequent visits to England. When we took night flights, we had a hired driver between Williamstown and the airport in Boston (about three and a half hours), but if we had done the same for a day flight, we would have had an unpleasantly early start for a 6.30 a.m. check-in. The hotel where we stayed didn’t offer much by way of meals, though, so it became our custom to make a short side trip to Chestnut Hill on the way, visit Borders, and eat at the Cheesecake Factory.

In 2001, just before the release of the film of The Fellowship of the Ring, we had ordered online a boxed set of the Houghton Mifflin hardbacks with film tie-in covers and been very disappointed to find the volumes were second printings. A few weeks later, on our way to Boston for a flight to England, we stopped at Chestnut Hill and were found that Borders had a very good selection of film-related editions, including individual first printings of the Houghton Mifflin hardbacks and a Ballantine set with film covers. I think there were also some new books on Tolkien, but don’t remember which. On another occasion, we were flying the day before the release of the latest Harry Potter volume, and the windows of Borders were full of still-embargoed copies we couldn’t buy. By the time we returned from England, we had to make do with a later printing, but didn’t mind too much as we came to Harry Potter late, and our copies of the first few books in the series were already reprints.

Recently we discovered another Cheesecake Factory closer to the motorway into Boston, so even if the Borders were still at Chestnut Hill, we would no longer be visiting it. This Cheesecake Factory is in the Prudential Center, which also houses a Barnes & Noble. Strangely, although I’ve also visited many Barnes & Noble shops, they don’t seem to have left me with as vivid memories as those I have of Borders.

Wayne writes: Since I went to library school at the University of Michigan in 1975–6, and Borders began and had its flagship store in Ann Arbor, I knew it from long ago and was in it frequently – in those days, looking for LPs as well as books. They had a good selection of Tolkien titles at a time when there weren’t many Tolkien-related books: it was there that I found A Tolkien Compass (published 1975). Sometime after I left for Massachusetts, Borders moved to another location in downtown Ann Arbor which, if memory serves, was more open and airy than its former shop (which I recall as stuffed with books) and conveniently located not far from our favourite Ann Arbor eatery, the Red Hawk Bar and Grill. (Is it significant that we tend to recall bookshops in conjunction with restaurants? Is it a matter of food for the mind and soul as well as for the body? I think we’ll have to write something about our favourite restaurants – most of those too now, like favourite bookshops, a thing of the past.)

Even with Amazon et al. and easy ordering online, it’s sad not to have Borders stores as an option for buying new books. I too have fond memories of them. More seriously, Borders’ demise has meant fewer outlets for sales by commercial publishers, and therefore less income and cutbacks in the number of titles published. It’s even sadder to realize that the end for Borders could be foreseen long before it happened. It was obvious that the firm was expanding too much and too quickly, that its branches in Britain really didn’t fit in well enough, and that its attempts to create an online presence were clumsy at best.

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One Comment
  1. Kieran Davis permalink
    April 13, 2012 6:56 am

    I share your love for independent bookshops, your views pertaining to online shopping and your feelings about the demise of Borders. Though, as you say, it was a huge chain of stores in a commercial empire, Borders was an avid reader’s dream come true with a veritable sea of shelves all bowing with books. I miss the two Borders stores that I used to visit regularly, one of which I used to visit in Bournemouth (UK) where Professor Tolkien once lived. I went every year on my birthday for the best part of a decade, always to the same restauraunt and always with the ticklish glee of browsing Borders massive Bournmouth branch. Since Borders closed, I stopped going to Bournmouth for my birthday. Terrible shame. Thankfully, I still have a fairly local independent bookshop in a neighbouring village, but must admit: The owners are concerned about their future now due to increased online sales through mediums such as Amazon destroying the high street (or better still, back alley)’s beloved book-sellers.

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