May 20, 2011

Meditations on Borders Bookstore

Good bookstores select their books and know them.
After the American Century

More than three decades ago I spent some time in Ann Arbor while doing some research. I fell in love with a wonderful bookstore that was local. Later was pumped full of steroids, franchised, and made a national chain, and then an international chain. That local store was Borders, and it had a wonderful selection of academic books, and it had clerks who really knew about the books. In the process of becoming a chain, however, the quality of the store deteriorated and it became largely market driven, pushing best-sellers and whatever the New York Times happened to review. 

This process has continued, until now there are some disturbingly bad books on the shelves. Books that are long on attitude and very short on logic, research, or balance. Books that the old Borders of c. 1975 would never have bothered with. In my visit there tonight I could not find a clerk who knew anything about the books. They were so patently not interested in reading that I wondered how they could get hired. Ann Arbor is a university town, and some of the students still must read words bound in paper. 

I asked one fellow if they had any books on the assembly line, and where they might be located. He immediately turned to a computer and started to type, but then stopped and asked me how to spell assembly line. He did not know if the store had a section of books on business, labor, or the history of technology. The upshot was that after an hour of browsing without help from an incompetent staff, I was unable to find anything of interest on the assembly line.

Note that Michigan is the center of American automobile industry, and that the assembly line was invented in Detroit. You cannot get into a cab or sit on a bar stool without running into someone who used to work on an assembly line. One would think that a bookstore in Michigan's largest university town would be able to muster something on the subject. Worse, all the other non-chain bookstores seem to have closed, at least according to what people tell me, and what I can see in walking around.

You can also read in the newspapers that Borders, the chain of bookstores, is losing money and closing many stores. The conventional explanation is that on-line stores have killed the local stores. It seems a little more complex than that. First, the local stores were assaulted by bookstore chains, such as Walden Books, Barnes and Noble, and Borders itself. This was going on in the 1970s and 1980s, before the Internet was a factor.

The bookstores of the United States are fast disappearing. Back when I was here years ago I was told that the best bookstores in Detroit were all in Ann Arbor, i.e. an hour's drive away. Today, is seems possible that the best bookstores in Michigan may be in Chicago, Illinois. 

A good bookstore is a repository of public memory.  Once you lose good local bookstores,  local culture and the distinctive sense of local history begin to fade out.

Follow up note: Since I wrote this piece the entire Borders chain of stores has gone bankrupt.