Posted by: Brad Nixon | February 13, 2011

Borders Song

Note: This post was spurred by the announcement that Borders Books would file for bankruptcy. The chain subsequently ceased all operations.

I don’t have a single photograph from that year, as far as I can recall; no pictures of my fellow masters’ degree candidates: Couth Helen, Ms. Marx, The Weed, Big Ersk or Dapper David. There are none of Chip and Judy — who were not a puppet show but my wonderful housemates — or any of the campus, or the Graduate Library where I spent most of my out-of-class hours. There are no landscapes of the dry, cool Fall out at Island Park where I’d go with Chip and Judy and their delightful retriever, Oskar, nor of the forty inches of snow that fell on Ann Arbor that winter. Nor do I have photos of the two different places we lived that year, or the little corner store in the neighborhood that sometimes stocked enough items to save me a long, cold bicycle ride out to Kroger’s in the shopping center zone on the edge of town.

That means, then, that I don’t have  a picture of Ann Arbor’s little downtown, or what was for me its most prominent fixture: Borders Books. In the relatively large city that surrounded the gigantic university there were, of course, many bookstores, including the “official” campus store in the Michigan Union. Although I haven’t been back there for several decades, I’m sure that’s still the case. Any world-class university supports not only the ordinary sorts of bookstores, but shops that cater to arcane specialties in many fields, and usually an antiquarian bookseller or two. Borders is the one that I remember from my day. The Borders brothers had opened the place just three years or so before I arrived on the scene, although I didn’t know that at the time. It already looked like it had been there forever, because the Borders started out selling only used books. There were probably some new books in stock by the time I first walked through the doors, but it was the gigantic and varied selection of used books that made the place my personal literary mecca, because I was on a tight budget. Only in a university town like Ann Arbor would you find inexpensive, used Everyman Library editions of Chaucer or Sir Gawain and the Green Knight that I needed for my classes.

I trust that most of you faithful readers share some degree of my own love of browsing through bookstores — especially used books. I may have bought only three or four books at Borders that year, out of all proportion to the amount of time I spent browsing there. It provided a haven from the tedium of the library stacks or the tiny room I had back at the house: a stimulating and out-there-in-the-real-world experience when I needed a break from reading, reading, reading that was the routine for most days of graduate school. And, browsing is free: a big advantage when free recreation was all I could afford. It was also indoors, which was a big advantage that winter over other forms of free recreation which tend to occur outside.

In the years that have followed, Borders went big-time, and certainly all my U.S. readers are familiar with Borders stores in shopping malls and downtowns practically everywhere. The bibliophiles among you probably have read that Borders reportedly will file for bankruptcy within the next few days. The Change came, and caught them. The book business is not what it once was. It’s larger and more diverse and powerful than ever, but different. I don’t have to explain how and why to this well-informed audience. Now, all the iconic book-and-mortar stores are suffering: Bertam Smith’s Acres of Books in Cincinnati and Long Beach — the ne plus ultra in used book emporia — are gone. Powell’s City of Books in Portland is feeling the strain. Hundreds or thousands of small, independent bookstores are no more, or struggle to stay open.

I have a computer and an iPod and a Kindle and a smartphone that deliver media to me — night and day, if I wish. But as I look around Rancho Retro, there are books, too. Some were bought online and delivered to the doorstep, true, but others I once plucked from out of a long, tattered line of multicolored spines from a bin in the dusty corner of a store: a treasure I wasn’t even expecting or looking for. Ol’ Geoffrey and Gawain are still with me, carted back from downtown Ann Arbor thirty-seven years ago; they both retain the underlining and notes made by whoever owned them before I did. I could go back to Borders in Ann Arbor, though it’s a newer, larger store than the one where I spent hours while the snow fell outside, though that would be a rather extreme indulgence in nostalgia. I don’t need photos of Couth Helen and Weed and the others, because their 20-something faces are still vivid in my memory and I can still hear their voices if I listen (honestly, I can still hear Dapper David reciting “ond aaahlle ge-schaaahfte“). And I’ll still have Geoff and Gawain with me, too. I’ll read the Gawain poem again when New Years rolls around, traveling with him through the wild, bitter realm of Logres, seeking the Green Chapel. It’s a lonely, hopeless quest for us each year, and, if all the bookstores are gone, we’ll be that much more alone.

© 2012 Brad Nixon



  1. I’m with you there. I guess we’re sort of old timers, looking back wistfully at a bygone era.

    I used in live in Westwood Village, not far from UCLA, in the 1970’s – mid 1980’s. In those days, the Village, being then to some extent a “university town,” though a bit upscale, had a good share of small bookshops where it was fun to go and browse. That was my main entertainment on the weekends, as I had little money back then: stroll the Village, have a bite to eat, spend time in all the quirky bookstores.

    Today? All long gone. Replaced by expensive, trendy clothing and jewelry stores. Ah well, thanks for the memories.


  2. Ahhh, chapter 11 announced today for Borders.

    Here in Hermosa Beach I still miss the Either or Bookstore and its resident cat and incense burning.


  3. even i, fierce indy booksotre guy that i am, am sad to see that particular “killer b”, as we referred to borders and that other large chain, come to this pass. i liked the little borders that used to be in downtown portland. rumor had it they were the only store in the chain not expected to turn a profit, but, you know, that’s a rumor.
    i was also sad to see tower go out, and who knows how long our large indy music store will hold out. electronic media. well well.


  4. Somehow just holding a good book in my hand would be difficult to replace with a Kindle. I love the small paperbacks that go with me everywhere, such as the latest one “What’s So Amazing About Grace” by Phillip Yancy. He also has a way with words, and great examples to drive his point home. I knew what “grace” was before reading his book, but now will think of his examples many times when I encounter the word, much as I do when reading many of your examples. Thanks for your thought provoking blogs.


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