Hard to get sentimental about a big box bookstore, especially when it was partially responsible for forcing independents out of business. And still.

When I moved to LA, Borders was already on the ropes, the one closest to my apartment a ghostly affair, a museum of unloved titles; they were too expensive to ever find a buyer who would want them enough to forgo Super-Saving Shipping on Amazon. You didn’t even feel like staying to browse magazines.

But in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where the chain originated and where I lived for nearly too long, it was one of two things to do if you were out of money or couldn’t stomach another blockbuster Will Ferrell movie at the cineplex.

The first thing was driving out to the mall, undersized so as not to attract people from poor suburbs clustered around that mouth of rotten teeth that was Detroit. Ann Arbor was supposed to be cosmopolitan and diverse, but diversity often meant that one person were wearing a different color Abercrombie and Fitch t-shirt than the next. The real diversity was outsourced to Ypsilanti, Ann Arbor’s poor shadow town.

At the mall, nobody cared if you had red wine in your coffee mug, and students in low-riders and flip-flops didn’t care about the 10-degree weather, and I watched the crowd, burly hoarders most of them, and felt sorry for myself. I have that inclination.

Yet the second thing was Borders, the one downtown, the ur-store, just a grilled panini-throw away from campus. Coffee wasn’t cheap, but cheap enough and I never liked Seattle’s Best, but anyway, nobody was checking if you had a drink sitting in front of your stack of magazines. Most nights I bought an au lait, grabbed an armload of magazines, watched the driving snow outside for a few more moments and then started reading about high performance cars, art news, retrospectives of French auteurs in New York – all the things outside Ann Arbor.

I spent many evenings there – the lighting was attractive enough. I did not go to the independent bookstore (which has since been closed as well), because there were no comfy chairs, the lighting wasn’t nearly as nice, and you were actually expected to buy books. No such thing at Borders. I did buy books there, and not only Harry Potter at midnight, but nobody ever cared how long you spent browsing and reading, you were wrapped safely in that big box anonymity. No human contact necessary.

Borders organized readings. David Sedaris, Chuck Palahniuk, the big hitters that wouldn’t visit the independent store. I never went. What I wanted was just a place busy enough not to feel sad and empty enough so you could find a table in the café. Was I worried about my behavior accelerating Borders death? Of course not. Border seemed untouchable, too big to fail. After all, were you afraid that Walmart would go belly-up?

Barnes and Noble might hang on because of its Nook reader. No such luck for Borders. I’m not sad about a big box dying, but for the damage it does to my memories of Ann Arbor winters. In 15 minutes I could walk from my apartment to that late-evening hangout. As imperfect as it was, it was an anchor, a sign that people still bought books, still drank coffee, and still cared about what was beyond this small college town.

Hell, I even bought my Christmas tree there. Hell, we saved Christmas that year.

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STEFAN KIESBYE is the author of Next Door Lived A Girl. His second novel was recently published by Tropen/Klett-Cotta Verlag in Germany; the American edition, titled Your House Is on Fire, Your Children All Gone will be released by Viking/Penguin in 2012. Stefan lives in Los Angeles with his wife Sanaz and their dogs Dunkin and Nozomi.

15 responses to “Goodbye Borders”

  1. Don Mitchell says:

    I try not to use the word “nuanced” unless there’s no alternative. It’s one of those convenient words that I think ought to be used about a third as much as it is. Or less.

    Stefan, thanks for a nuanced view of big boxes bookstores and strip malls.

    In Hilo, there was a Borders and two small bookstores mostly focused on Hawai’i-related books. If I wanted to browse fiction, Borders was the only game in town. About a year ago, it closed. That meant Amazon for me and browsing only online.

    In Colden/Buffalo that’s not the case. Borders is gone, but there’s a B&N and a good indie bookstore as well (Talking Leaves).

    But in Hilo, and I suspect many smaller cities as well, Borders was everything. It was the only place, and railing against outfits like Borders always seemed chickenshit to me — chickenshit because it usually came from urbanites with plenty of other choices. The subtext (oops, another word I don’t like to use) was “if you’re out there in the hinterlands, you’re not a reader . . . real readers don’t go to Borders.”

    Wine in a coffee cup? I’m impressed.

    • Yes, wine in coffee mugs, it was a survival strategy.

      And yes, Borders was the only thing in Long Beach, too, at least downtown Long Beach. I talked yesterday to an Ann Arbor friend, and he said it’s going to be ghostly there, because after the indie store left, Borders was all that was left. Now they only have B&N on the outskirts of town.

      And it does make Amazon almost the default choice, which is okay, but doesn’t give you any feel for the book you’re buying and just isn’t “book-buying” at all.

      Ah, Talking Leaves. Now that was/is a nice store. Go Buffalo!

  2. Irene Zion says:


    When we go on driving trips in the USA, we loved to see a Borders. Great BIG cups of coffee, the Wall Street Journal and mulling around among the stacks writing down titles of books I hadn’t heard of before that I could put on my ridiculously long list. We leave on another trip tomorrow. I guess it’s Barnes and Nobel now. (Books-a-Million doesn’t carry the paper.)
    So long, Borders. It’s been swell.

  3. the only thing missing from a Borders was the little ‘extra,’ Amsterdam style. Good on trips too!

  4. Yeah, when Borders was in its heyday, that was the sortta place I thought would NEVER go under. Sign of the times, I suppose. Wonderful piece, Stefan.

  5. Gloria says:

    The first thing was driving out to the mall, undersized so as not to attract people from poor suburbs clustered around that mouth of rotten teeth that was Detroit. – – cliche to say, perhaps, but truly one of those lines I wish I’d written.

    I don’t have the same begrudgingly wistful thoughts about Borders that you do, but I might have a weird, inexplicable pit-of-my stomach feeling if, say, Denny’s went out of business (which would be a fair price to pay, in my opinion) and for much the same reason – only insert “Roswell, New Mexico” for “Detroit, Michigan.”

    Great piece.

    • Thanks for stopping by, Gloria, always good to hear from you. Ah, Denny’s, yes, always bad and charming in that strange way, and of course, you’re right. It’s to diners what Borders was to bookstores.

  6. Paul Clayton says:

    Good piece, guy. I’ll miss them too. I used to take my daughter to Borders all the time, when we were still going through the ‘every wed after school visit with dad’ thing the court ordered. She loved it and so did I. She’d sit in the anime aisle and read (after I bought her some sweet drink, usually containing Oreos, of all things) and I’d look at the mags (no, not the dirty ones), usually PW or the news mags. Oftentimes I’d wander around looking at the table displays, get a latte. And most times I ending up buying something, usually a couple of books for Colleen. I always told her, “books… I don’t have a problem with buying you books.” But I usually limited her to two at a time. Now she’s nineteen and in college. Well, we see each other on facebook sometimes.

    • Hey Paul, thanks for your comment. What you describe is such an essential Borders experiment, the browsing, the buying of drinks and maybe, almost as an afterthought, books. And in its anonymous, cavernous, grocery-store-but-better-ness, it was awesome.

  7. Erika Rae says:

    It’s funny – I always felt more anonymous at B&N in Boulder, than at Borders. At Borders, I always ran into people. Maybe it’s just a nuance of the town. Either way, I know what you mean. That wish to go in, have people speak to you only if spoken to (i.e. the barista), and then leave with the sweet air-conditioned imprint of zen in your heart.

    Alas. Even Borders had borders.

  8. “the sweet air-conditioned imprint of zen in your heart.” Wow.

    That even Borders has such clear and deathly borders is heartbreaking. what good is this world?

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