Reaction to Borders bankruptcy filing: Hope for Ann Arbor area stores & chain's future
Watching the chain’s well-publicized fall from profitability has been painful for a community that once proudly proclaimed its affiliation with the retailer that grew out of a single storefront on South State Street.
That store evolved into an admirable legacy for founders Tom and Louis Borders, who expanded into a group of stores, then sold them to Kmart before the chain merged with Waldenbooks and went public. And it stayed a symbol of retail opportunity, innovation and intellectual pursuit in downtown Ann Arbor after the flagship store moved into the city’s largest retail space by the mid-1990s.
But today’s filing also isn’t a surprise to the Ann Arbor area. More recently, Borders’ brand equity eroded while the company’s pre-Chapter 11 repositioning played out in public for a number of years - without resolution.
Borders ceased its role as a community booster during that time, and its reputation as a book seller dimmed. Still, many people in Washtenaw County still feel a connection to the store that grew to prominence here.
They wish it didn’t get to the point of bankruptcy, they said as the filing loomed. And they hope it survives.
“It’s still a wonderful store,” said Jim Chaconas. “I’m sorry to see this.”
Chris Grant, vice president at First Martin Corp., maintains ties to the Borders family, forged in the years that the book store was established in Ann Arbor and became part of the city’s identity.
The spirit of the Ann Arbor store didn’t translate to nationwide expansion under corporate leadership, Grant said: “They weren’t able to capture that when they (moved) all over the country.”
Today, the bankruptcy filing’s loss for Ann Arbor comes down to one thing, Grant said: Jobs.
“It’s the jobs and the corporate headquarters that are the loss for Ann Arbor,” he said.
Diane Keller, president of the A2Y Chamber of Commerce, agreed. She expressed concern for employees who’ll be losing jobs as part of the bankruptcy filing, in this region and beyond.
“The loss of jobs is going to be the hardest,” she said, “ not only in this market but across the country.”
But she also spoke of the hometown ties to Borders and what it means to have its corporate headquarters here, even after its headcount dropped from about 1,800 a few years ago to around 550 early this year.
“It would bring a lot of sadness to this area to lose a homegrown corporation,” Keller said.
Borders has been a good corporate partner in the region, Keller said, noting that it had ended its chamber membership a few years ago, only after corporate cutbacks dictated the change.
“They have been a good community supporter,” Keller said. “They’ve supported the community, the chamber and the schools. I hope they can reorganize and get to that point again.”
There are three locations in Washtenaw County: Downtown, Arborland and Waters Place in Pittsfield Township. So far, only Arborland is scheduled to close.
Mayor John Hieftje addressed the possibility of the downtown store closing at February’s meeting of the Downtown Development Authority.
The situation at Borders clearly was deteriorating at the time, and he said he’d talked to landlord Agree Realty about their contingency plan - which has included reaching out to potential tenants to let them know building particulars.
"A (store closing) is the last thing we would want to see happen," he said.
A handful of customers trickled into the flagship Border’s store in Ann Arbor as it opened Wednesday at 10 a.m. Outside, reporters from news outlets waited to interview them as they left.
Solomon Felek studied for a medical certification tests in a black lounge chair on the second floor. He said he prefers shopping at Border’s over other chains, and he doesn’t buy books online. Instead, he uses coupons he receives to buy books at Border’s. The Ann Arbor resident said he has purchased study materials lately.
“I prefer here,” he said. “I get coupons. It’s cheaper to buy with coupons than online,” he said.
A back-pack toting college student perusing the reference section Wednesday morning might disagree with that sentiment. She buys books online to save money - but she likes to peruse books in person on shelves.
Another Ann Arbor resident said the news of the bankruptcy saddened her. Monika Barera browsed art supplies Wednesday morning.
“It’s so much a part of the town,” she said.
Barera likes to shop at all three of the Border’s in Ann Arbor and said she likes the feeling of holding a book in her hand.
“I guess I’m old fashioned in that sense.”
AnnArbor.com reporter Juliana Keeping contributed to this report.