On the Rise and Fall of Borders Books ‹ Literary Hub

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The following essay by Tom Borders is excerpted from Among Friends: An Illustrated Oral History of American Book Publishing & Bookselling in the 20th Century, edited by Buz Teacher and Janet Bukovinsky Teacher (Two Trees Press).

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In 1970, Louis Borders was working in a bookstore in Boston while attending M.I.T. He suggested two start-up business ideas to his older brother, Tom, who had taught English in a small college and was on a sabbatical trying to write the Great American Novel. Tom dismissed Louis’s scheme to computerize the Daily Racing Form’s statistics so they could make an easy living playing the horses. Louis suggested their next best opportunity was to open a small used bookshop in Boston.

During the time they were drawing up business plans for the bookstore, a neighbor in Louis’s apartment building on Boylston Street was burglarized in the middle of the night. The brothers decided Boston was too fast for them—they needed a more manageable city for their little enterprise. Louisville, Kentucky, their hometown, was out of the question because they had never seen much of a bookstore there. Both had degrees from the University of Michigan, and loved the smart, hip, intellectual atmosphere of Ann Arbor.

After discussing the enterprise name for many long weeks, they decided to launch “Borders Book Shop” on a very modest scale, quietly and out of the limelight, in Ann Arbor. No employees. Not a corporate venture. Barely a business. They would keep it very simple. Originally, they thought they would both work half-time and have time to read and write, and become intellectuals.

That same week, Tom and Louis heard about a major estate auction to be held in Boston, with thousands of books as part of the sale. They planned to commit a good part of their capital, up to $3,000, to buy inventory there. At the auction house they spent hours going through the marvelous collection of a man who had been in the Massachusetts Senate in the early 1900s and whose estate had been in litigation for years: hundreds of leather bindings, fine illustrated editions, but best of all a well curated reader’s library.

On auction day, the last items to be sold from the massive estate were the books. The auctioneer apologized because the original intent had been to divide the books into a dozen smaller lots, but since time was so short “we will auction the books in a single lot. Do I have an opening bid of $3,000 dollars?” A dozen people raised their hands including the nonplussed brothers.

By adding to the store space piecemeal, the brothers had drifted into the “superstore” concept quite by accident.

Deflated, the Borders’ bookshop fantasy had seemingly vanished. After the auction they met the renowned antiquarian dealer Richard Mills, who had purchased the books for $8,000. A Harvard graduate and World War II Navy submarine vet, he lived in Exeter, New Hampshire. Mills had a photographic memory; he was a true genius and a gentle soul. Somewhat unkempt, he had a bottle of Maalox leaning out of his wrinkled sport coat pocket. Tom asked him if he needed help moving the books, and was hired. Without much further discussion, Richard Mills walked out of the auction house with a small box of rare pamphlets under his arm. The pamphlets were worth the price of the entire lot.

The company forgot that selling books is not the same as selling sausage or socks.

Potential staff in the stores were given a test to assess their literary acumen, to find out if a potential staff member was a “book person” who could help customers and who could contribute to the delicate literary atmosphere. If he didn’t know who Norman Mailer, Frank Lloyd Wright, Julia Child, and Andy Warhol were, should he be working in a bookstore? The staff needed to be well read, communicative, and bright. They needed to offer a high level of service to the customers to compliment the complicated selection of books, without showing too much ego. Often the staff were specialists in certain subjects, such as art, science, literature, or history, allowing them to be more helpful to the customer. Those specialized staffs brought more to the table than typical retail clerks: they were smart, eager to learn and eager to share their knowledge. Furthermore, they helped the buyers improve the selections by adding titles for the system to their assigned subject area. A good bookstore is a glorious business with terrific people.

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This is one of more than 100 essays by prominent industry figures in Among Friends: An Illustrated Oral History of American Book Publishing & Bookselling in the 20th Century, edited by Buz Teacher and Janet Bukovinsky Teacher (Two Trees Press). Illustrated with vintage book jackets and period graphics from Publishers Weekly, Among Friends is a deluxe limited edition that pays homage to the creative and entrepreneurial spirit of the book business during a time of great change in American culture.

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