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Ann Arbor 200

AADL Talks To: Jody Kohn, former PR and Publicity for Borders

When: August 31, 2023

Jody Kohn
Jody Kohn

In this episode, AADL Talks To Jody Kohn, who worked for Borders in various roles, including merchandising, PR, Publicity, and Promotions, and director of communications for international stores. She witnessed many changes over the course of her career, and discusses the history of Borders as a brick and mortar from its origins in 1971 through the 1990s and later years. 


  • [00:00:10] EMILY MURPHY: [MUSIC]. Hi. This is Emily.
  • [00:00:11] ELIZABETH SMITH: And this is Elizabeth. And today, AADL talks to Jody Kohn, who worked for Borders, where she worked in various roles, including merchandising, PR, publicity, and promotions, and Director of Communications for International Stores. She witnessed many changes over the course of her career and discusses the history of Borders as a brick and mortar from its origins in 1971. Hi, Jody. Thank you for joining us today. Can I ask you just how you first became involved in the bookselling business?
  • [00:00:41] JODY KOHN: I used to work actually at a hospital. Between the hospital and my home, there was a small bookstore called the Book Beat. They were between the hospital and home, and I did not like my job at the hospital. Almost daily, I would stop at the bookstore to hang out, buy books, talk to the owners, Cary and Colleen. A couple of years into it, I had a bad car accident. Had to stop working, had surgery, spent a lot of time at the bookstore while I was healing. They asked me to come and work for them for the holidays, and they would pay me in books. [LAUGHTER] Right? So, I worked for two weeks, owed them, I don't know how much money, [LAUGHTER] and didn't leave for almost nine years.
  • [00:01:26] EMILY MURPHY: Wow.
  • [00:01:27] JODY KOHN: It wasn't my plan to be in the book business. But once I got into it, I loved it so much, and they specialize in art and photography and kids books. The customers were amazing and being around the books. Then I learned the book business, because it was such a small store. I needed to learn how to order, I needed to learn how to return, I needed to do windows, I needed to merchandise, I talked to the publisher reps, etc. After all those years, I had a lot of book experience, even though my college degrees, I had master's in counseling. That's what I went to school for. I ended up loving the book business.
  • [00:02:06] EMILY MURPHY: Where was this bookstore?
  • [00:02:07] JODY KOHN: They're in Oak Park, suburb of Detroit.
  • [00:02:10] EMILY MURPHY: You're still talking about them in present tense, which is rare with small bookstores.
  • [00:02:15] JODY KOHN: Yes. They opened in 1982, and they were about 3.5 miles from the second Borders store that ever opened. They at that time were very concerned that Borders was going to put them out of business. As it turns out, they have now survived borders by 12 more years. They've stayed in business. They have, I think, the most incredible loyal customer base that I've ever seen in my life. They made it through the pandemic. I heard that they worked with the city, with the mayor to help be able to in the beginning of the pandemic, when people couldn't really do anything to do curbside, etc, and their customers are so loyal that they wanted to help keep them in business. They're still there.
  • [00:02:59] EMILY MURPHY: That's really fabulous. [LAUGHTER]
  • [00:03:00] EMILY MURPHY: How did you transition from there to Borders?
  • [00:03:05] JODY KOHN: After doing that for so many years, I hadn't expected to stay living in Michigan, but then I had a father that was ill, and I decided to stick around. I was living in the Royal Oak, Ferndale area, and it wasn't really where I wanted to be. I really thought if I'm going to stay in Michigan, I'm going to move to Ann Arbor. I just kind of blindly sent Borders a letter and said, this is my experience, here's my resume. I'm interested in working for Borders. I want to come to Ann Arbor, let me know if there's anything I can do. It wasn't like there was a job posting or anything. They got back to me and said, we like for people to work in the store first, and we're opening a store in Dearborn, are you interested in working there? I said, yes, and I went and I worked there as an assistant manager for about nine months, and and then I got a corporate job and moved to Ann Arbor.
  • [00:03:59] EMILY MURPHY: What did that assistant manager job look like? What were you doing for those nine months?
  • [00:04:05] JODY KOHN: First of all, we opened the store. They call it a sort. I think stands for sorting everything out all [LAUGHTER] of the books. When you open a new store, every single thing has to go into the store, every book has to be put on the shelf. Every employee has to be trained to understand the computer system, which, by the way, I had never used a computer. The place that I came from, this is in 1994, and the store I came from did not have a computer system. Our inventory was like all of us knew something. Who was going to get what from where? If somebody wasn't there, you'd call and say, Cary, do you know where the Ansel Adams, [LAUGHTER] etc, a book was? When I got to Borders, and they were using computers, which I had never used, and by the way, you also had to take a test, which I'll talk a little bit about later. But because I had worked at a bookstore for so long, they taught us the computer, but I just thought, I don't really need the computer, and I didn't. They take the assistant managers, and they want you to train in all the areas. They have you do HR, which is mostly the scheduling, obviously dealing with the employees, merchandising etc. You had all had different roles. My first role was even though I thought I should be the merchandiser, they said, we want you to learn HR, so you'll be the HR manager, and they sat me down at the computer and no joke. I sat down and I looked at the computer, and I looked around then back of the room with the other system managers and said, what does Low-John mean? [LAUGHTER] Everybody looked at me and realized I meant login. What do you mean you don't know what that means? [LAUGHTER] I did do the HR manager job for a little bit, but I think they realized that wasn't really the space for me. It becomes a family, like almost any workplace. There was a music manager, a cafe manager, the HR, the merchandising, there was a general manager who oversaw everything, and then each manager had different areas, and so that's pretty much how it worked in the store then. But I cannot tell you the excitement and hard work and when you open a store as large as Borders, putting every one of those books in the right place and making sure everything was right, and Borders has had such a passion for local, making sure that they were treating the local customers as if that was the only customer that they had. They appealed to that. I was in Dearborn, so there were a lot of books that were for the Arab community. We had to learn. Where does the Quran go? How do you have to put it on the top shelf? Write all of these different things that we all had to learn because that was what you did for that community.
  • [00:06:56] ELIZABETH SMITH: Can we circle back to the test you had to take?
  • [00:06:58] JODY KOHN: Yes. Joe Gable, who is pretty much a Borders icon, who was the manager of the store from the early '70s, not right when they opened, but not long after they opened about 2-3 years, I believe. He was a book guy, and he wanted to make sure he hired people that knew about books. He developed this test that was pretty heavy duty about your knowledge of literature, history, geography, you needed to be able to figure out, you needed to know new fiction, you needed to know old fiction, etc. He developed this test and anybody that worked for Borders, I don't know how long that test stayed, but at least at Dearborn, it was still there. If he developed that test in the mid '70s in 1994, that test was still being used, and it was pretty daunting for a lot of people. It's not like if you completely blew the test. I think once you were out of Ann Arbor, [LAUGHTER] I think maybe people, they cut you some slack. But in the early days from what I understand, that test really made a difference for who he was going to hire and not hire because he wanted to make sure he had people, not only that knew books, but had a passion for books.
  • [00:08:14] EMILY MURPHY: That makes a lot of sense and how you build your community as a bookstore. After nine months in Dearborn, you said you came to Ann Arbor, what did you do then?
  • [00:08:24] JODY KOHN: I was originally hired. My title was Book Merchandising Associate. My main job was to work directly with the publishers in promoting their books on the end caps. The end caps are for people that don't know the end of the aisle of the books that are displayed prominently. The way that the book industry worked then, I'm assuming it's still like that now, is that publishers, and the bigger the publisher, the more the money, publishers had X amount of money to use for what they called co-op, and so I worked with other people to develop those end caps with the co-op funding to do that. That was my initial job that I did. I worked very closely with the buyers so I got to know the buying staff really well. I worked very closely with the marketing people because you wanted to make sure that what you were putting on the end cap was current and was going to help obviously to sell books. If there were movies coming out or there was something new in current events, etc, we wanted to make sure we were featuring those things. As a result of that job, I pretty much had to work with other departments, more so than maybe some other departments might have done.
  • [00:09:36] ELIZABETH SMITH: How long were you in that position?
  • [00:09:38] JODY KOHN: I don't know for sure, but I'd say less than a year.
  • [00:09:43] ELIZABETH SMITH: Then what was after that? What was next?
  • [00:09:44] JODY KOHN: Well, somewhere in the time that I was doing that job. I knew a lot of the publisher reps because I had already worked in the book industry, and they had this part of Southeast Michigan as their territory. Somewhere in there, I don't remember if people started saying, Jody would be a good person to talk to the press or my boss at that time knew that I had done that in the past. Borders was relatively small back then, still. The press would call because they were big enough. They were getting bigger and bigger and bigger, and they would want to know, what's the new book? What's hot for this? What's happening here? I had been doing that at the Book Beat. Somewhere in there. They didn't really have a PR person or a marketing or people that did that sort of thing back then. My boss felt like I might be good for that and she asked me, "Hey, would you talk to so and so?" I started doing that a little bit more, and as a result of doing that, that got me a promotion to being a marketing manager. I moved over to the marketing team, although I think the co-op team was inside the marketing, if I remember, was inside the marketing arm anyway.
  • [00:10:49] EMILY MURPHY: What did that look like? Were you spending time still in the store or were you more behind the scenes? How did those things piece together?
  • [00:10:57] JODY KOHN: At that time, more behind the scenes. But Borders had this policy that at holiday time, people at the corporate office here in Ann Arbor would go to stores to help. We would go to different stores around the country. They would send us there to get us to understand what it was like to be in the store. Like I said, they said we want people to work in the store first, and lots of people came from Store Number 1, which is the original Ann Arbor store that were working in the corporate office. But a lot of people necessarily hadn't really worked in a store. They would send us out to the store, so you'd get to know them. Of course, working here, we had a number of different locations that we worked out of. Some of those locations were downtown Ann Arbor. Of course, we would spend a lot of time at Store Number 1. When I started with borders, they were already on Liberty Street, they were no longer on State Street. You would be in the store for those reasons, but you weren't actually working in the store any longer.
  • [00:11:57] EMILY MURPHY: Did you find that you developed connections with particular stores, ones you were happy to see were in your rotation to visit?
  • [00:12:04] JODY KOHN: Well, yes, as my job grew, and eventually, I became the director, and my job entailed doing PR promotions and publicity. I'd remember it was the 3Ps. [LAUGHTER] That's how I remembered what my job was. When that job happened, I started to go to New York a lot. At the time, when I started working for Borders, there were no New York stores. Barnes & Noble had a stronghold in New York. Borders really wanted to get to New York. I would spend a lot of time there, and we opened our very first Border store in New York was at the World Trade Center. I spent a lot of time in the World Trade Center Store, again, at their sort, meeting the people, getting to know the people, and then at that time, I would visit publishers and also music labels. Because I was developing promotions, there were lots of other things that were amazing that I did as a result of being able to go back and forth to New York.
  • [00:12:59] EMILY MURPHY: What are some stories? I'm sure you have just dozens from that era. Do you have favorites that you look back at?
  • [00:13:06] JODY KOHN: I have lots of favorites. We won't go into all of them for sure. A lot of them for me, I think, in many ways, I had the best job in the company, and I also had an incredibly stressful job. Because I did the promotions, and let's face it, Borders at that time now the second biggest bookstore in the country. Barnes & Noble is the first, Borders is the second. People, not just publishers, wanted to get into Borders one way or another to put their product, whatever that might be. We would get, I can't even remember how many, hundreds, probably of people coming to us saying, "Hey, we'd like to do this, we'd like to do this." It was my job to develop these relationships. One of the things I did that Borders was involved with, which was amazing, was Lilith Fair.
  • [00:13:55] EMILY MURPHY: Really? I didn't know Borders was involved with that.
  • [00:13:57] JODY KOHN: Yes.
  • [00:13:58] EMILY MURPHY: What did your role look like with that?
  • [00:14:00] JODY KOHN: Well, apparently, Sarah McLachlan, when she was organizing Lilith, she wanted sponsors that were true to her vision. She wanted a bookstore and she wanted Borders. That was her idea that she wanted Borders to be part of it. It was my job because of the promotion piece of it to talk with them. It was incredibly cool and our staff loved it. We actually built, basically, not a store, but a big kiosk, at the Lilith Fairs, with Borders presence, and then as a result of that, we had Sarah McLachlan was here in Ann Arbor. She was also out at our Farmington Hills store. But I, because I was lucky enough to be involved, in that got to go to the first Lilith Fair and at the Gorge in Washington, and then I drove down there to Portland was the second one, and I got to hang out with everybody. That was super cool. [LAUGHTER] I still have at home a signed Lilith Fair litho that Sarah McLachlan did and a "ho-ho-ho happy holidays" little pamphlet thing. Stuff like that was cool. I also worked a lot with movie studios because how many books turn into movies. Probably the coolest one was the English Patient. We had Michael Ondaatje the author and Anthony Minghella, the late director at our store in L.A., taking a book to film. As a result of that, I got to go to a Miramax Oscar party. That was one of those moments, and I'm there by myself theoretically working. There's hundreds of movie stars in there with—holding their Oscars, and I'm just sitting there thinking to myself, "Who am I and how did I get here?" [LAUGHTER] I'm a book person. This is basically [LAUGHTER].
  • [00:15:58] EMILY MURPHY: You're right, a book person you don't necessarily think of as being comfortable stepping into that role. Was it something that you had to work on or did it fall to you pretty naturally?
  • [00:16:07] JODY KOHN: I think it was pretty natural. A funny story about the Oscar party was I was sitting by myself. Again, I became friends with the people at that time that were doing marketing for Miramax and some other places too. They were working, the people I knew that invited me were working. I'm sitting by myself, and some people came up to me that, for lack of a better word, looked more normal, like I did. [LAUGHTER] They came up to him and I was at a table for four, and I was alone. There were two or three, I can't remember if there were two, but at least two of them. They said, "Excuse me but can we sit with you? You look like you're like us?" [LAUGHTER] I said, sure, and it turned out to be Michael Ondaatje's kid and her husband or husband and wife. I can't remember who was who. Here I ended up sitting with Michael Ondaatje's kids, while his book turned into a movie is winning Oscars. It all tied back into books again.
  • [00:17:03] EMILY MURPHY: That's great.
  • [00:17:04] JODY KOHN: I know, I have story after story about these different things that you would never think because you're in a bookstore. I did Al Pacino, because he was doing this movie about Richard III, and we were trying to promote Shakespeare in inner city schools. There are those types of things that Ken Kesey, who wrote One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest, he was in the Merry Pranksters. They were doing the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame was opening in Cleveland. They wanted to do some special event, doing promoting the new Rock and roll Hall of Fame, and so they ended up traveling in their bus from San Francisco across the country and stopping at a bunch of Borders stores on the way, culminating in hearing Ann Arbor and then in Cleveland.
  • [00:17:51] EMILY MURPHY: You played this role for three, four years?
  • [00:17:56] JODY KOHN: About that long.
  • [00:17:56] EMILY MURPHY: How did it change over time? The late 90s were certainly a time that the way we consumed media was starting to change.
  • [00:18:07] JODY KOHN: That's for sure. But I think it was just on the cusp of it, right? I think the idea that because at that time, people didn't have smartphones, right? They weren't scrolling the Internet on social media yet. Those things weren't really happening. Having all of these incredible events in the stores and doing those things was a great place for people to gather and come. Certainly, I mean, people wanted to come and see these, whether it was an author or a musician or a director or whomever. Some type of celebrity. People wanted to see all of that. I mean, I was there when they were talking about, do we do or do we not? I was sitting in a room with a group of executives when they were saying, I don't think Amazon can make any money with, they're going to discount books that much, right? That's where I was before I left. It was right at that. The music business which we had done well with CDs was just starting because of MP3 and these downloads, and that started to impact people buying CDs. That was really a change in what was happening with the way people get their information.
  • [00:19:25] EMILY MURPHY: Did you then have to speak publicly about this change as the voice of borders, or did that happen more after you left?
  • [00:19:32] JODY KOHN: I did have to somewhat, especially about were we going to do or were we not going to do I had people that I talked to journalists from both the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, USA today, people I had conversations with at least weekly, maybe more, just to talk about what's going on in the industry. Those were the people that were calling going, hey Jody, what's up with Borders? Are you getting in or are you not getting in? One of the things that happened was Borders just wasn't on board with the .com thing. They started it, but for lack of a better term, I would say haphazardly. I remember sitting there talking about it and every one of us that was the director of something was suddenly now the director of of that area. Now you're going to do promotions publicity PR for .com. Now you're going to do buying for .com. Now you're going to do IT .com. It wasn't like they're like we are all in on this internet business. Personally, I think that was the beginning of the end. That was part of it. They were not in on the .com. They were in on bricks and mortar, and they were going to build more stores and take out longer leases, not knowing what was coming with the real estate market in 2007 and 2008. They really were heavy duty into the belief that people want a community bookstore to come to, to gather, to meet. This isn't going away.
  • [00:21:06] ELIZABETH SMITH: You did the PR position for about three years, and then what happened after that?
  • [00:21:12] JODY KOHN: Well, I continued to do the PR and the publicity and the promotions. In fact, the very last thing that I did officially for Borders, which was incredibly amazing was a four day teaching with the Dalai Lama in Los Angeles.
  • [00:21:26] EMILY MURPHY: What did that look like?
  • [00:21:29] JODY KOHN: Again, this is somebody came to us for a sponsorship and because I had already been a practicing Buddhist, they were like, came to the right person. I don't know if somebody else were doing my job, would have ended up, but what they wanted was money for sponsorship, but also they wanted us to build a bookstore at the teaching. The teaching was the forum where the Lakers used to play back—they weren't even playing there any longer. There was this big event venue that they were going to bring the Dalai Lama to, and what they wanted from us was to build a store and sell Buddhist books, music, videos, were still around DVDs at that time. We have author signings. We had authors that were there at that time, the Art of Happiness by Howard Cutler and the Dalai Lama, Howard Cutler did it with the Dalai Lama. He was there signing books. Richard Gere was there, and he had written the forward to a book called Sorrow Mountain. We had him and the two authors involved in that book. We were able to get that piece of it, the Borders doing these amazing promotions and book signings, and a lot of different people too. We actually built a store. The people that worked in the Los Angeles area worked very hard on doing that. They put together and worked at the store for the entire four days and that store was packed during breaks. That was my last official thing. Unfortunately, I had had a very bad injury and I wasn't supposed to be working, but if you're playing a Dalai Lama teaching for a year, you're going to go.
  • [00:23:06] EMILY MURPHY: Well, it seems the job you had was also not one that gave you any breaks to not be doing that job.
  • [00:23:14] JODY KOHN: I honestly was working 60-80 hours a week, because the promotions were by far the best part in the most fun part of the job. But, I also had to talk to the press when there was talk about insider trading with our stock. I had to deal with Michael Moore, when he was featuring Borders in a movie and telling us the union busting—I became the union busting spokesperson, which is so outside of who I am. All of those things had to happen too. It was like two divergent jobs. We would sit in meetings and people would say, I want to feature this. Unfortunately, my brain would go to, could this go wrong and am I going to be talking to the press? Where, if I was only doing one thing, it would have been a different story. It seemed, I think like I was the negative naysayer, because I'm thinking, well, if we feature that, is somebody gonna find that offensive?
  • [00:24:05] EMILY MURPHY: You also worked with the Borders International. What piece did that look like in your job?
  • [00:24:12] JODY KOHN: Because of the PR store opening was part of my job, the publicity part of it. When we opened stores, the first store was in Singapore. Again, you had to learn about this culture. In Singapore, all the books had to be wrapped. The whole thing about Borders was going in there, touching the book, feeling the book, opening the book, reading it on a couch or a chair. You go to Singapore, their culture was such that people wanted books that had not been touched. Then again, you're learning about local stuff that you don't know anything about. My part of it was getting all the marketing materials out, setting up interviews with the executives or the people that were going to be running the store there. I didn't go to Singapore for that, but then we opened in London. In London, Borders bought a small bookstore chain called Books, etc. It was my job to go out there and train the executives to how Borders talks to the press, as we're opening the new store and helping figure out all of that. I was lucky enough, I went to London a couple of times with the stores there. I went to open a store in Melbourne, Australia or Melbin, as they say, because they don't keep their Rs and so I was involved in opening in New Zealand, Australia, and Scotland.
  • [00:25:34] ELIZABETH SMITH: You saw a lot of changes throughout your career, which you touched on a lot, but are there any other memories that stand out?
  • [00:25:40] JODY KOHN: The thing for me about all of it and you can see this on Facebook today, there are over 9,000 people on a closed Facebook group for old Borders employees. I think it was the passion that everybody that worked there had for books, even if they were in IT, even the people that weren't necessarily with their hands on the books, even the people in the cafes.
  • [00:26:07] JODY KOHN: The love and passion that everybody had for books, as music came in. It was already there when I was there. But talking to the people, even Joe Gable, who was now at the headquarters when I was there. I'd go in Joe Gable's office, and we would just sit and talk about books, and he would talk about the downfall of Borders. But it was how much everybody cared about each other and how much everybody cared about the same thing. It was a lot of very educated people, that found something that they loved to do that wasn't the highest paying job in the world, unless you were up higher on the ladder, but that they knew that they could get benefits, and they could make friends and that they would have, they believed a job that they were going to be able to have for their life. It became a career that people loved so much, the passion, that's what I think about the most. Going and talking to the buyers and just talking about what new is coming out and the excitement about, I'm a bigger fiction than non fiction reader, and I'd sit with the two fiction buyers and just talk about all this great stuff and how can we feature it and how much people would talk about? You've got to read this, you've got to read that, you have to listen to this, that's the part that I remember the most.
  • [00:27:23] EMILY MURPHY: How does having that job impact you as a reader now?
  • [00:27:26] JODY KOHN: I think it's interesting. Especially way back when I was working at the Book Beat, I felt like it was my job to read things that I could sell. Even though I was reading, they also really cared about their customer, and they weren't necessarily about the big best sell at the New York Times Bestseller list. But what is the small book that maybe nobody's going to find out about that we can now hand sell? I loved doing that when I was at Borders in Dearborn. I would say, I love this book, and maybe we would get sent two of that book and I thought, I can sell ten this weekend, I need more, and the buyers would listen, and they'd see I could sell that, and then they would send—and then the way the inventory system worked, they would see that you're selling more in that store than in another store. When I read now, I'm not necessarily thinking, can I handsell this for somebody. I definitely am reading less, I would say, than I did then because in fact, I just over the weekend was cleaning out my basement and moving an office, but I'm a psychotherapist now, and I was moving my office books to my home, and I had to get rid of books. Part of the job that I had, I could just order whatever I wanted for free. I sold about 700 books to Dawn Treader one year because I just who's going to keep all those books in your house? Now when I read, I just think what do I love, but I also might go on to the Borders group page and say you see this. You can go on there and say, hey, people will say, hey, I need a science fiction book for a 12-year-old, and people are still coming up with stuff for each other.
  • [00:29:04] EMILY MURPHY: Gosh, I love that.
  • [00:29:06] JODY KOHN: That's part of what's so great. Seriously, a few days ago, I think I saw something and somebody said, I'm looking for just like customers, I'm looking for a book that's silver that I think has, this in that you guys know this for sure.
  • [00:29:19] EMILY MURPHY: We sure do.
  • [00:29:22] JODY KOHN: Yes, so this ability to have these nine plus thousand people that are still doing this. I love this book, I love this book so, in some ways we're hand selling to each other still.
  • [00:29:32] ELIZABETH SMITH: As a PR person, you had to tell the story of Borders, though you weren't there in the early years.
  • [00:29:37] JODY KOHN: Yes.
  • [00:29:38] ELIZABETH SMITH: How was that for you? How did that work?
  • [00:29:40] JODY KOHN: It was, I think more than anything, I had it down at that time borders opened in 1971. It was a small used bookstore on State Street.
  • [00:29:50] EMILY MURPHY: We'd love to hear it if you are willing to give us your however part you want to give it. But we would love to hear the stories from the early years.
  • [00:30:00] JODY KOHN: Tom and Louis boarders were brothers. They both had ties to the university. I think if I remember, Tom, maybe was an undergrad, and Louis was a grad. Tom, they opened a used bookstore on State Street. It's my recollection, and I'm not 100 percent sure that I'm right about this, but I've been told this many times that was in where the current Red Hawk restaurant was a used bookstore. They moved across the street to where CVS the M Den is now, but turned into Shaman Drum, that was the 303 South State Street address. The way the story was, Tom and Louis Borders, Tom was the book guy, and Lewis was the computer guy. Louis developed an inventory system like nothing else that became really the highest standard in the book industry. As they were doing their store, and Lewis was developing the inventory system that turned into book inventory system or what we called BIS. That was they sold that system, or they sold the use of that system to other bookstores, I think, mostly in the Midwest, Schulers, and some other stores. It's been like 20+ years that I've done this. They started servicing other stores with that inventory system. Then they moved across the street to the State Street and eventually turned into a new bookstore. They were at that time, Tom was running the book end of the store, and Louis was working on continuing to develop and hone the computer inventory side of it. Then in the early days, and I think it was about two to three years after they opened, so '73-'74, maybe, Joe Gable entered the picture. Joe was a student, I think in Madison, Wisconsin, but he had a girlfriend in Ann Arbor, and he decided to come to Ann Arbor and he had worked in a used bookstore and he decided to go apply at Borders, and he started, I think, working as a clerk and eventually became the manager. He not only did he love books, but he loved university presses. He wanted to feature things in that store that you couldn't find if you went to B. Dalton's or Waldenbooks. He wanted to create a store where people in Ann Arbor that are more intellectual and have this thirst for knowledge could find things that you just can't find. They're not looking for the New York Times Bestseller list was his attitude, and he was right. He also cared about featuring local authors. Joe became this figure who not only did he run the store and manage people, but also swept in front of the store. This is the story you hear. Of course, I was not there, but this is the story you hear about Joe. He cared about the store, he'd sweep outside every day, he'd look and see he would make sure things were where they wanted them to be and then at night, he apparently would go through the inventory cards. In the beginning, there were inventory cards when there weren't computers and he would go through every card. My understanding is it take about a week before Louis' system would catch up and so somebody might come in and say, hey, do you have this book, and they'd look it up in the card, they'd say, well, we think so, and they might be looking for it, and they'd go to Joe and Joe say, no, we sold that four days ago. You're not going to know for three more days but right now this is where we're at. Joe had that ability to be able to not only be the face of the store and cultivate talent in terms of his booksellers, but also be able to know the inventory and that was a big inventory. Even before they moved into the Liberty shop. They were just the one store and then I guess Tom and Louis decided they're going to open a second border store, because what they knew was, and this is true, because I at that time lived in Southfield, and I would come up to Ann Arbor to go to Borders. Like lots and lots of other people in this area. You'd have to drive almost an hour to go to a bookstore, which was cool, but you didn't necessarily want to do that every single time you wanted to go and see and so Tom and Louis knew this, and they decided to open a second store. That was the store that was close to the Book Beat that I was working at. Even though I wasn't working for Borders, I feel like I was working in an environment that borders was impacting. Because I remember so clearly the excitement and the disdain especially because of where I was working, and we that worked at the Book Beat at time felt like, why are they picking this spot? But apparently, and I don't remember if it was Tom or who it was, somebody was standing on. They were at 13 1/2 mile Road in Southfield, which is considered Beverly Hills Birmingham area there. One of them was standing with a car counter. Seeing how many people are driving by at different times of the day, and that's how they found that location. They thought, this area, there's Birmingham, Beverly Hills, it's a little more upscale, people are readers there. We're going to find the place that there's the most traffic. They weren't just thinking, let's open a second store, 3.5 miles away from the Book Beat. I'm sure that's not what they were thinking. Although that's what we were thinking at the Book Beat. But they were thinking, we have a great concept, we want to bring books to a broader audience, let's go there. That happened, and then after that happened, they opened some more stores. They were I'm going to go back. The first store was 800 square feet. They wanted what they called a niche for a serious bookstore. Two years later, they moved to their third location and then that's the 303 State Street store and that was in 1974, they moved. In 1988, Tom and Louis decided to bring in, and at this time they had opened the second store, I think they might have opened a few more, I'm not sure. Anyway, they decided to bring in leadership, and they ended up with Bob DiRomualdo, I have no idea how because he hadn't been in the book business, but he had been a big retailer. They wanted to grow the company, they decided to grow the company. It's interesting when you look back because to do this, I looked back at some of the Borders history and these articles because they had now been out of business, like, what was the downfall of Borders? Some people say, well, it was when they brought in other people. It was when they moved to Liberty Street, it was when they opened the second store. There were all these people, trying to figure out what happened to this great bookstore. But they brought in Bob DiRomualdo, and even though he hadn't been the book business, he liked books, he was a book guy. He loved books, the longer he worked for Borders, the more as I got to know him because I worked very, very closely with him in my job. He cared about books, we flew together, he read books on the plane. It wasn't just a guy who came from some retailer and just cared about retailer, but he had a vision that apparently, Tom and Louis, they shared the vision of what they were going to do. He came in 1988.
  • [00:37:44] JODY KOHN: In that time frame, they decided, well, they're starting to open more stores now. Like I said, I was came to Dearborn and that store opened '94. In that four year period, a lot of different stores were opened and then they started adding music. Bob decided, well, music, let's add music in people that love books, love music. They continued to grow, and then in 1992, they had an offer to be purchased from Kmart, which is what a lot of people think when you look at these articles, well, and I just read interestingly, I read an interview with Joe Gable talking about people. He was so tired of people talking about blue light specials and Kmart this and Kmart that and the downfall of customers that weren't going to come back because Kmart owned Borders now and this sort of thing. But really, Kmart didn't have any that influence that people were scared of. But Kmart had already purchased Waldenbooks several years, I believe before. A lot of people didn't even know this. That Kmart owned Borders or owned Waldenbooks. In 1992, they paid about $190,000,000, Kmart did. Then the Borders Brothers were gone—out. They did what they were going to do. Tom was in Austin and Louis moved to Northern California. But Tom was still involved, in some ways. We had a Borders Group Foundation, which is now BINC to help the book industry if booksellers have issues and whatever, a flood or a fire, and they need money. Borders people are running that, so Tom was involved in the foundation. He cared about helping booksellers. He still stayed somewhat involved, but mostly they were completely uninvolved once the Kmart thing happened 1992. Then in 1994, Borders moved from the State Street location to the Liberty Street location. For me, it was the same time that Dearborn was happening. This is the big time of their expansion Kmart, they had this Kmart money. They're starting to open now all over the country. They're starting to grow stores, taking out leases for some stores to move into bigger stores and some of the areas. Borders moves into the old Jacobson's building, which is another sad story of local business. They were Jackson headquartered, but a big business for Ann Arbor. Jackson at that time, Jacobson's went over to the mall. But then they went out of business also. Then Borders became the biggest retailer in the Ann Arbor area. At one time, I think when I recall, and this is from my old PR days that I don't remember the exact, but I think it was the University, Pfizer, and Borders were the three largest employers in Ann Arbor.
  • [00:40:31] EMILY MURPHY: Makes sense.
  • [00:40:34] JODY KOHN: It had a huge import on this town. Not only for the people that were coming to buy books and music and sit in the store and love books, but it gave a lot of people jobs. It gave a lot of people jobs with benefits. It gave a lot of college graduates that didn't want to leave Ann Arbor job [LAUGHTER] which we know happens here in the city. Again, I think at that time, too, from what I hear, people are like no the old Borders—people are lamenting. People don't like change. But then people are happy. There's this even bigger Borders doing this thing and there, you can still see Joe Gable sweeping outside [LAUGHTER] and getting the books together before he opens the store and making sure everything's neat and tidy and the titles he wants to show are still there. In 1995, so just a year later, and I personally know—I'm now in Ann Arbor. I have already moved here by now. Borders goes public. Again, the people lamenting what happened to Borders. I do believe going public was probably the hugest change when you look at the early days, because now your bottom line is not just your bottom line. You have investors and shareholders and people watching every single thing you do, every single quarter. Have you made money or have you lost money? This is now when I'm in Ann Arbor and starting to talk to the press not too long after that. This is the part that I remember the most, of course. For those of us that were there in those early years, we got stock options. That were there when this happened, and so that was a benefit for the employees. If you were a bookseller or you were the CEO, of course, it wasn't the same for the bookseller and the CEO, [LAUGHTER] but everybody now had a share in whether or not the business succeeded. Although there was, I believe, profit sharing, too, in the old days that I heard Joe used to give out envelopes to people at Christmas time and then close the store and pop champagne. Now people had some more maybe a little more motivation, even though they might not be happy with some of the direction, if the direction does well, then it actually makes a difference to every single person working here no matter who you are, so that was a big incentive. Certainly for somebody now, by the time I became a director, it was a huge incentive because instead of getting raises or getting very small raises, we got stock options, which were very profitable for many of us, myself included, even though I was on the phone talking about is their insider trading the day that the stock hit the highest, [LAUGHTER] I didn't get to sell it then. But it made a difference in people's lives and a bigger impact. People were finding down payments on their homes and doing things that you would never expect to do working in the book business. That really, though, to me, I think, became the big deal of what happened in terms of the world, a global financial piece of the world looking at this company that was the small used bookstore on State Street. But as they opened, and this is when they were making these decisions. What are we going to do? We earn this money from going public. What happens now? Borders decides we're going to open internationally. We're going to bring this concept to other English speaking countries around the world, we think this can work anywhere. This is not Barnes and Noble did not decide to do this. They decided, we think the .com business might be more important for us. This is where things start to take this turn that for whatever reason, on high, and I think some of it was, Borders was very often in the shadow of Barnes and Noble in terms of being the second biggest bookstore. But they also for many people were still believed they were the best bookstore. You talked to publishers or apps I heard this even Michael Moore when he was mad at Borders because he wanted—he felt like they should unionize. Even in an article that you can find in New York Times between the two of us talking about the corporate stance and Michael Moore said, he says, "I think this is the best bookstore in America." This was the view Barnes and Noble, they were great, and they were big. But Borders, they cared about the community. They localized it. They were book people. That was the big thing that you heard over and over, no matter where I went around the world. People would say, we hear Borders they're book people. It's not just a retailer. I think this decision to open internationally, not going to the—right? These are the things that started to shift in terms of what was going to happen and whether it's the beginning of the end at that point or what is it Kmart or is it the second store is it moving to Liberty. All these different things that people want to believe that had happened? Which thing is it? But that idea of going international and building more brick and mortar. That was the heart of what Borders wanted to do.
  • [00:46:07] ELIZABETH SMITH: Thank you for sharing all that history with us. Can we ask you what are you most proud of over the course of your career there?
  • [00:46:13] JODY KOHN: I personally, just for myself in my own career, I think I'm most proud of these really big promotions that I put together. Lilith Fair, I was involved in VH1 Save the Music. We worked with the Today Show to bring instruments to stores. At the Today Show and VH1 to save the stores. Having Hillary Clinton at the store and having some small local group that's playing a harp trio or something in a store. All of these things that we were able to bring, the idea that I would sit at my desk and have people from all over the world saying, We want to do this promotion. How does this sound to you? To be able to work with movie studios and bring books to movies and get people to come back to books again. Those are the things that I feel I'm proudest of as helping and turning people on to reading. More than anything, the music thing was great. The other things that were s the coffee, all of those things were great, but for me, also as a book person. It was bringing books to people, whether it be here in Ann Arbor or in Auckland, New Zealand. Bringing a large variety of books that specialized in this local stuff and being involved in that, not early on as other people. But early enough on that I watch the growth of it and feel very sad by what happened, and I live near Arborland, and I go to Arborland and see the Gap, and I see that, and I think that was the Borders store I used to walk up to. But for me, the pride personally, I think pride in being part of the Borders history. I think, and I think for many of us, was just having a group of really passionate intelligent people bringing books to the world. [MUSIC]
  • [00:48:08] ELIZABETH SMITH: AADL Talks To is a production of the Ann Arbor District Library.