Column: Where are they now? Borders brothers long gone from Ann Arbor as chain nears bankruptcy
As the book store chain that bears their name approaches bankruptcy, brothers Tom and Louis Borders are nowhere to be found.
The Louisville natives started Borders Book Shop on South State Street in 1971. After Louis developed innovative inventory management software, the company transitioned into expansion mode. In 1992, the brothers sold it to retailer Kmart Corp. and stepped out of management of the company.
At the time, Borders had just 21 stores. Today, the company has 25 times as many Borders stores -- an extremely costly footprint that is expected to drive Borders Group Inc. into bankruptcy as early as today.
When the Borders brothers sold their budding bookstore chain, the company was well known for its impeccable customer service, top-notch inventory system and large-format approach that uprooted the way the books were sold.
But the Borders shopping experience eroded over the years as the chain grew in size, management became unwieldy, the Internet encroached on sales and electronic books emerged as an alternative for avid book readers.
What is it like for the Borders brothers to watch their company slide into disrepair?
They're not talking. In fact, from what I can gather, Louis and Tom Borders have said next to nothing about the bookstore chain over the last eight years or so.
I reached Tom's office in Austin this morning, but his administrative assistant told me he's rejecting all interview requests.
Louis is in Silicon Valley somewhere. Every phone number I've encountered so far for him doesn't work.
Louis famously formed grocery delivery website Webvan.com in 1999 only to see the company go out of business in 2001 as part of the dot-com bubble bust. The San Francisco Chronicle described Webvan, which lost nearly $1 billion, as "one of the dot-com era's most spectacular failures."
The Washington Post got Louis on the phone recently and he "declined to discuss his namesake's problems or even whatever fondness he may hold for what's left of his first big idea," the Post reported.
"'I've been away for the company for a while, and I just don't want to talk about it,' he said, before quickly hanging up," the Post reported.
Louis' latest venture, a company called MyWire.com, appears to have failed. That firm was formed in 2002 as KeepMedia.com, a paid service that aimed to provide archived magazines in digital format for readers.
"We feel we're right on the cusp" of a mass audience willing to pay for content, Borders told the Ann Arbor News in 2003, according to our archives.
Eight years later, Borders itself can attest that media companies are still struggling with that same challenge.