Borders: Our home away from home, finding Ann Arbor wherever we go

wang_borders_cards_112.jpgIn the wake of Borders’ liquidation announcement, what to do with all these Borders cards? | photograph (and cards) courtesy of my daughter Margot

A few years ago at Ann Arbor Art Fair, the police had gotten tipped off that our most notorious photographer, Harvey, (who has also photographed Chicago) was planning a big photo shoot of several nudes in front of the State Theater. The police were waiting when Harvey arrived with his models. Harvey and the crowd were indignant, shouting, “It’s tradition!” (for Harvey to take a photo every year during Art Fair).

The police were unimpressed with their protests.

This year, the news that comes in with Art Fair is that Borders is really closing. Not just bankruptcy, which we had convinced ourselves was a temporary legal maneuver, but it is really closing. Liquidating. Even the downtown store is up for lease.

When I read the news about Borders, my 15-year-old daughter Hao Hao shouted, “NOOOOOO!” pause, “I have to post it on Facebook.”

She cannot imagine an Ann Arbor without Borders — it’s tradition — but the Michigan economy is equally unimpressed with her protests.

When I first moved to Ann Arbor, there was only one cafe (Espresso Royale on State Street, and Borders was only one store.

But what a store it was.

Located on State Street then, it was a wonder. Every week, my classmate Brian would report to the other graduate students the latest books that had arrived in the philosophy section and his latest conversation with the Borders employee who stocked that section.

Most philosophy sections in “normal” bookstores had only Joseph Campbell and the I Ching. We could not believe that this bookstore had a full wall — a huge wall — of real analytic philosophy books, the real thing, and lots of it.

In those days, to get a job at Borders, one had to pass a literature test that was rumored to be so hard that most English graduate students could not pass it. Needless to say, the folks who worked at Borders were like rock stars to us graduate students.

When my housemate Sharon befriended a Borders employee who then brought other Borders employees to our house parties, the other guests were so very impressed with us. Nerds all our lives, Sharon and I joked that this was the closest we had ever come to being popular.

When people we knew started dating Borders employees, well, that was the only thing we really needed to know before we started oohing and ahhing, “He works at Borders.”

Then I went overseas for four years, just as one Borders employee I knew moved away to go open Borders 2. When I returned, I found that there was a Borders in every town. Even nonacademics — normal people — like my brother went to Borders and talked about Borders.

Borders quickly became my family’s place to find birthday and Christmas presents, hear authors like Iris Chang and David Sedaris, fundraise for Emerson School, attend the Harry Potter midnight book release party, research new interests, do homework with the children, hang out before and after shows at the Michigan Theater. It was always our last stop before every long plane ride.

(Whenever we visited relatives in other cities, it was our place to get away from those relatives when necessary and be ourselves again for a few hours.)

The Borders where my parents live closed last summer. The children and I used to go there all the time. Now it is a Walgreens. My parents do not understand what the children and I are upset about — Borders closing. For them, Borders was just a bookstore that closed a long time ago.

However, for us, because we are from Ann Arbor, it was our home away from home.


Frances Kai-Hwa Wang is a second-generation Chinese American from California who now divides her time between Michigan and the Big Island of Hawaii. She is an editor Asian American Village, lead multicultural contributor for, a contributor for New America Media’s Ethnoblog, and a contributor for Chicago is the World. She is on the Advisory Board of American Citizens for Justice. She team-teaches “Asian Pacific American History and the Law” at University of Michigan and University of Michigan Dearborn. She is a popular speaker on Asian Pacific American and multicultural issues. Check out her website at, her blog at, and she can be reached at



No Comments

Comments are closed.