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Posted on Sat, Aug 6, 2011 : 5:58 a.m.

Q&A with Nicola Rooney: Ann Arbor bookstore owner talks about why Borders failed

By Lucy Ann Lance


Nicola Rooney, right, waits on a customer at her Nicola's Books in this 2008 photo. Rooney says she thinks Borders lost touch with the book-buying public.

File photo |

It’s time to bury Borders, yet the funeral refrain for the international Ann Arbor bookstore chain continues to echo in a community still hurting by the pull-out of Pfizer. Borders was everything we loved about a “townie.” Its roots firmly planted in the town where it was conceived by two brothers in 1971.

On 1290 WLBY this past week, Dean Erskine and I talked with Nicola Rooney, who in 1995 bought a small bookstore and began operating it as Nicola’s Books. Located on Ann Arbor’s west side in the Westgate Shopping Center, the store originally got its start in nearby Maple Village around the same time Borders opened.

Nicola: It’s a sad day for the book industry and, of course, for everybody in Ann Arbor and throughout Borders who doesn’t really have a job anymore. It is a big change. The book industry is in the middle of some major changes, and some of the difficulties that Borders had go back a long way. This has been something that has been happening very slowly and they haven’t seemed to have found a business strategy that would put off this final end, which is most unfortunate.

Lucy Ann: Aside from the obvious, Borders being such a large entity, what is different from how Borders ran its business and how Nicola’s runs its business?

Nicola: The major thing is that in a small corporation, everybody is hands on. They’re right there; there are no difficulties with knowing what’s going on or communication. We talk directly to the publishers. Bill Cusumano knows everyone. He does all my adult buying, and knows all the publishers. Linda Goodman, who does all my children’s buying, she reads a lot of the children’s books. So we’re absolutely hardwired into what’s happening in the book industry. We know our customers, so we can make sure that we have the kinds of things that they want. We also have a very good computer system for making sure that if a book sells, whether we’re going to get it back into the store again. We try to make sure that the books that the customers want are there on the shelves. With Borders, of course any time you go into being a very big corporation there are layers and layers and layers. You get a lot of layers of management in between the people who actually know the customers and the product on the floor, the booksellers, and the people who are running the company. Borders imported, over the last five or 10 years, many people who did not know the book industry. Many Americans never buy books, so the book buying public is a very special segment of the market. I think they lost touch with that.

Dean: Nicola, do you think that the industry is just going to be smaller independents that are able to make it in certain communities where they have more of an interest in books and reading, like a university community?

Nicola: I think it will depend very much on what a community wants and whether a community understands that if they want to maintain a small independent, then they have to go there and buy stuff. Most people do not appreciate how many customers it takes to keep a business viable. They may be upset when a business goes out of business … (but) if people don’t shop there, the business disappears. That’s what a free market does for you. They have to value what the independent business offers them. You can buy anything just by going to your computer, but you don’t get the same kinds of choices and guidance as when you actually go to a store and look at it and talk to people about exactly what it is that you want it for and then they can help you choose. It’s all a question of whether customers are going to continue to value that kind of advice.

Dean: Lucy Ann and I are big proponents of shopping local. I’m seeing more local businesses closing that I never would have thought would close and these are more people losing their jobs. Buying local is getting more important. Huge companies are cutting back their employees and they may never come back again anyway, even if the economy does improve.

Nicola: They may not. Opening a business is always risky. Keeping a business going when it’s not doing as well as it used to is less risky than starting a new one. If local businesses continue to hang in there with just enough customers and slowly work out what it is that they need to do to encourage their customers to buy local, and certainly the buy local movement is a lot stronger than it was five years ago, I think the message is getting out to people.

Lucy Ann: Your store is in the Westgate Shopping Center, and you’ve had a north side location in the past, although you closed that down. Have you thought about putting a Nicola’s Books in the old Arborland location of Borders?

Nicola: No, for two reasons, really. Nicola’s Books in Westgate is 8,500 square feet and the Borders Arborland and the Borders downtown are three or four times bigger than that. That is too big for a bookstore, because in the days when those bookstores worked they were selling significant quantities of music and videos. Both of those markets have changed much more even than books, in that people now download or get from Netflix, so you don’t need the space for that. They also usually have cafes which take up a certain amount of the space. I think that my size of a store is quite good for a book store, so the spaces that are being left by most of the Borders will be too big for many independent people to consider taking over that actual space.

Lucy Ann: Aren’t you in a position where you might be able to expand and open up another location if you found the right size space?

Nicola: I wouldn’t want to do it myself. I would be quite happy to talk to somebody and give advice to somebody else who was thinking about doing it. I would have thought that a bookstore in the downtown area, if properly managed, ought to be viable at a 5,000- to 8,000-square-foot size. I would have thought that there was enough foot traffic downtown that a bookstore could survive, but I don’t think that I would want to do it. One of the things I learned when I had both book stores was the reason why my store has been able to survive is that people do know me and my staff and so there are certain customers that when they come in, they want to talk to Bill. There are certain customers that when they come in they want to talk to Jessie (Martin.) There are certain customers that want to talk to me and if I’m not there enough, then they feel kind of short changed. If I were to open another store, it wouldn’t really be a Nicola’s. It might be run and owned and managed by me, but there would have to be somebody else who was the key figure who had the personality of that particular store.

Lucy Ann: We’ve seen the demise of other bookstores in downtown Ann Arbor, too. Why?

Nicola: I think that each one had its own particular dynamics. When Shaman Drum went out that was because there were huge changes in the way that textbooks were being bought and sold. That business, which had been the mainstay for them -- sort of an invisible part of their business in that you didn’t see it in the store but it was a very important part of their business model -- that all went online. Borders was really a lack of ability of the management to adapt to the changes that the book industry has created. If you compare them with Barnes and Noble, Barnes and Noble is not at their most successful right now but they are still there and they are run and owned by people who are still book people through and through. I think that’s a huge difference.

Dean: It will be really interesting over the next year to see how your business increases.

Nicola: It should increase some. I’ve been following some of the talk on the site and there are certainly people who believe that Westgate is so far out of their way from downtown, that it takes several camels and many days of trekking to get there! You’ve got a lot of independent merchants like Big George’s and Mast Shoes and Barry’s Bagels, so it’s a really nice little community on the west side there, but until you go to it and get used to it, you don’t know what you’re missing.

Lucy Ann: Are you in a position to hire some of the former people who worked at Borders?

Nicola: Well, I need to be very cautious. The business that used to be Borders, by no means will all of it come to me. Some of it will, but in order to keep my business model viable I have to be quite careful to balance my staffing requirements with the business as it picks up. If business were to pick up quite significantly, then I’m sure there are some people out there that I would be very foolish not to consider bringing on board. I think that within the next year I will certainly have a better feel because Border’s has been an uncertainty in my business horizons for quite a long time that I knew that something had to change. The last thing that I want to do is to get overly ambitious and to expand too fast and then find that the market overall is contracting. I’m going to play it very carefully and just try to grow with it as the customers grow.

Lucy Ann Lance & Dean Erskine own Lance & Erskine Communications, which produces “The Lucy Ann Lance Business Insider” (M-F, 8 a.m.-11 a.m.) and “The Lucy Ann Lance Show” (Saturdays, 9 a.m.-12 p.m.) on 1290 WLBY. The programs are live streamed at, and podcast on The above interview is a condensed version of a longer conversation that is edited for clarity. The complete audio interview is posted online at



Sun, Aug 7, 2011 : 1:43 p.m.

I was surprised that there was (from Nicola or Lucy Ann) of the real reason for the demise of Borders: the decision to sell their books via Amazon as opposed to setting up their own website business model. They simply handed their business over to someone else and that was that. No mention here either of the e-readers and 'paperless' books -- I wonder if Nicola will fall victim to that trend, which is starting to look like the internet bookstore trend that Borders never fully recognized and failed to take advantage of.


Sun, Aug 7, 2011 : 12:50 p.m.

Love Nicola's, and will always buy my books there or at Common Language if available. Always support my local stores. to Borders, here is my Anatomy of a failure lesson for today: Example: Hardcover version, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows BORDERS - 34.99 AMAZON - 20.86 BARNES & NOBLE - 21.07 WALMART - 20.25 One of these things is not like the other.

Vivienne Armentrout

Sun, Aug 7, 2011 : 1:20 a.m.

Nicola was very modest about promoting her business in this interview. She doesn't point out, for example, that she has a customer loyalty program with a rebate after buying a certain number of books, email newsletters, and even a birthday present. There is also a special senior discount day (Wednesday). What I have found useful is that one can check the online catalog to see whether a book is on their immediate availability list. (<a href="" rel='nofollow'></a> The other day I wanted a book right away and it was on a long wait list at the library. I checked online and the website said &quot;1-5 days&quot; which can mean it is on their shelves or available quickly from a supplier. So I called and yes, the book was there and I could pick it up that afternoon. You don't get that with Amazon. (I've also ordered things not immediately on the shelves and they come in very quickly.) One thing I liked about Borders (and I did get fond of the Lohr Road store) was the greater number of science fiction titles on the shelves. This genre has not been well supported by Nicola's, though they have had some author events. I think that Nicola's could do well with a little more shelf space. But they make a real effort to have books available that are reviewed in the New York Times book review and other major venues. I've been pleased at how many important nonfiction books I've been able to just pick up off the shelf.


Sun, Aug 7, 2011 : 12:09 a.m.

Nicola is an unbelievable woman entrepreneur. I first heard her speak at WCC at a student event concerning entrepreneurs. She was absolutely honest about what it took to succeed in business. She wasn't rah, rah, rah. She told it like it was. It was sooooooo refreshing. I have also heard Lucy Ann speak as well at a SCORE event. She is also refreshing. I am really concerned about the shifts in the economy. If the middle class isn't going to have any money to spend, then who will small businesses sell to? I am not saying that it has to be the middle class or that things have to return to how they were. But, I simply do not get the picture of how this is going to work. Business needs sales (not necessarily tax cuts) to survive. So, who is going to be purchasing products and services and what products and services will they be purchasing? I don't see it to be the middle class in MIchigan. They are out of work and without spending power. I think Nicola senses that there is a shift and she is doing the right thing to simply identify a market that she can count on, serve it well, and survive. I really like that lady!


Sat, Aug 6, 2011 : 7:30 p.m.

Hello Happy Senior. That last post was actually the first time I have ever made a comment on this site, so I think you are confusing me with someone else. Regardless, I was NOT suggesting that small business owners say anything to their customers about this. I think choosing to have the credit card option is a wise one though. I WAS, however, suggesting that we as consumers should consider choosing to pay for purchases with cash or check if possible. I sure hope I have not offended anyone. Miche


Sat, Aug 6, 2011 : 5:29 p.m.

Yes, a good interview, but I don't really agree that the Borders closing is &quot;a sad day.&quot; The real &quot;sad day&quot; occurred years ago when Borders sanitized, dumbed down, expanded like gangbusters, and helped usher an end to many good local bookstores nationwide. It was back then that Borders lost its local flair, its soul, and any sense of uniqueness. Accordingly, its demise is indistinguishable from that of Media Play, Circuit City, Highland Appliance, Fretter Appliance, or any other sterile corporate chain.


Mon, Aug 8, 2011 : 5 p.m.

Amen, Doug.


Sat, Aug 6, 2011 : 4:37 p.m.

I will be going to Nicolas for my magazines now, I haven't been there for a few years. Hopefully they still have a good selection of gay mens magazines and uk celeb mags.


Sat, Aug 6, 2011 : 1:17 p.m.

It does sound like she has a positive attitude toward our economy &quot;I'm going to play it very carefully and just try to grow with it as the customers grow.&quot; After hearing all of the politicians talk, I thought businesses were sitting on piles of cash, not paying taxes because of loopholes and not hiring people simply to be mean but I guess the business environment really is VERY UNCERTAIN and not recovering like the news reports.


Sat, Aug 6, 2011 : 12:44 p.m.

Nicola's level-headedness is what will keep her business thriving. She has found her niche and understands what those who ran Borders did not: It isn't necessary to expand beyond your means. In fact, it's often fatal. Great interview! And Nicola's is a wonderful bookstore. Check it out if you haven't already.

Somewhat Concerned

Sat, Aug 6, 2011 : 12:04 p.m.

People &quot;buy local&quot; when local earns their business. If local is as good as the alternatives, people buy local, but businesses, including local businesses, are not welfare recipients and are not entitled to our business just because they are local. If you run a dusty bookstore where it is hard to find what we want and the staff ignore us and we can't touch a magazine without buying it, you are not entitled to our business just because you're here. Anyone who wants our money should earn it (excluding people of welfare, politicians and state employees - who traditionally are exempted from having to provide value for what they get). Borders did not provide value. It was as local as Nicola's - and if number of employees, taxes paid, and charitable contributions are your measures of local, it was more local. It was not entitled to our business, and neither is Nicola's or any other merchant with a window sticker that urges us to buy local. Take down the sticker and put up on your cash register, facing your employees, that says &quot;earn their business.&quot;

Somewhat Concerned

Sat, Aug 6, 2011 : 5:12 p.m.

I wish it were true that the concept of earning our business is a given; if it were a given, more of our local businesses would have survived. I'm a big fan of local business and small business. I root for them and am irritated when I see storefronts turn into 7-11s, Five Guys and Ben &amp; Jerry's. But some local businesses are just second or third rate, and they do feel entitled to our business. As for Nicola, she seems to have a fan club, so she must be doing a lot of things well. She certainly gets nice coverage from this blog. My experiences in her store have been not as positive. The staff has been preoccupied with chatting with each other and yelling to each other across the store. Opinions will differ, even among reasonable people.


Sat, Aug 6, 2011 : 1:49 p.m.

&quot;excluding people of welfare, politicians and state employees - who traditionally are exempted from having to provide value for what they get&quot; I guess you don't use roads to get to stores, those were built with state employee help and oversight. I guess you never eat out, as those pesky govt employees ensure your food is not filled with ecoli, that your ice cream did not have a rack of ribs stored on top of it. You must stop a lot of crime by yourself, all of those lazy cops and prison guards can be found sleeping behind a dumpster while you sleep cozy in your bed (which does not have carcinogenic filling because it was checked by a lazy govt worker)


Sat, Aug 6, 2011 : 12:54 p.m.

That's the point of Nicola's Books, isn't it? Her staff and her store DOES go the extra mile to provide advice, browsing, keeping in touch with the most current or the best. The problem is that we have a generation of people who think Amazon and internet shopping first and don't begin to venture into these shops. By reminding them to check local outlets, they may discover a place and a resource that will surprise and delight them. If nothing else, to have a short chat with an employee can break the tedium of the shopping day. No one says not to buy online or at the big box stores. You have to do what you need to do to save money. But, going to a local, well-run shop is as much about the experience as it is about the product. I will say this though, those local stores that try to create a false sense of haute fashion or trendiness by inflating prices to New York levels are guaranteed failiures in today's day and age.


Sat, Aug 6, 2011 : 12:42 p.m.

I don't believe that anyone who urges you to buy local wants you to forgo all notions of quality and service and shop at that crummy dusty bookstore just because it's around the corner from your house. The concept of earning the business is a given. The idea is that, given equal quality, buying local should be your choice. And the reason is simple: When you buy from local merchants, a much greater share of the dollars you spend goes back into the community than would have been the case if you bought at a big chain store. If you buy online, nothing goes back to the community. Of course, you have to care about your community to understand what this movement is about and to choose to buy from local merchants.


Sat, Aug 6, 2011 : 12:02 p.m.

I have heard comments like those from Miche before, usually from the clerk at a local shop. I have a finite income and finite discretionary spending limits. I still try to buy locally even though it is more expensive to do so. Sometimes I use a credit card. Merchants might want to consider that lecturing a customer about not liking their method of payment while they are buying something is close to slapping them in the face. If you don't want to accept credit cards, put up a sign and stop accepting credit cards. Nicola is a genius in the independent bookseller business. Her shop is both comfortable and deep. The window displays are decorative and fresh. She offers a wide selection of books, magazines, and gift items. The chatty newsletter includes what books are newly released as well as happenings in the store. Her hours are convenient and the parking is abundant and free. Shopping at Nicola's is like visiting a neighbor and friend.


Sat, Aug 6, 2011 : 11:07 a.m.

Nicola makes a great point when she talks about making a conscious effort to buy local rather than buying on line. This is what keeps our local jobs sound. Speaking from experience as someone who works with small business owners on a daily basis, purchasing with cash or check (instead of your credit card) saves these small businesses the cost of processing credit cards. We don't think of it as consumers, but if a little back of the envelope math were put in play, if 50% of a business owner's monthly $50,000 revenue came through credit card transactions, they could be paying as much as $1,250 per month! That's an amazing drag on a small business. Nicola ... love, love, love your shop!!! Miche


Sun, Aug 7, 2011 : 4:26 a.m.

they always take my credit card if I need to use it.I'm sure she will take payment any way you want to give it.The writer made the comment not Nicola


Sat, Aug 6, 2011 : 11:48 p.m.

I'm not a fan. I actually stopped going to Nicola's because they wouldn't take my credit card. Paying the transaction fees is a business expense that any entrepreneur should be willing to front.

John B.

Sat, Aug 6, 2011 : 6:34 p.m.

I'm a 55-year-old antediluvian white guy, and I pay for most things with cash. I pay all of my (received on paper, in the US Mail!) household bills with checks. If you have to give someone several twentys to pay for something, you know you are really paying for it with hard-earned cash. That said, I still have a credit card for certain types of purchases, but I use it responsibly and pay the balance in full every month. The credit card company hates me. :-) I believe more people should do what I do, and that maybe we wouldn't be in at least some of the economic mess that we are, if everyone did, but that's just me talking.... I'm also debt-free, fwiw.


Sat, Aug 6, 2011 : 5:18 p.m.

My sense is that the credit-card fees, though high, are the cost of getting business the merchant otherwise wouldn't get. Who carries large sums of cash anymore? And paying by check? Really? I have pretty much forgotten what a checkbook looks like. And this isn't some trendy millennial dude talkin' here; I'm an antediluvian 47-year old white guy who doesn't text or even have a Facebook account.

Linda Peck

Sat, Aug 6, 2011 : 10:53 a.m.

This is a very good interview of an important business woman in Ann Arbor. I enjoyed this very much, and I do shop at Nicola's often. It is a great place to buy books and other things, and sit and relax to look at something before buying it. Westgate is enhanced by Nicola's presence, as well as a very nice public library branch within steps of it, all encouraging reading and notably children's reading.