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Twilight at Borders

Borders Downtown Long BeachI went into the Borders in downtown Long Beach today, thinking I might browse around and then do some writing. Since I’d never been in that particular location, I also wanted to drop in before it disappeared. Borders, you may have heard, is rapidly approaching terminal velocity in the company’s long fall from its glory days in the nineties.

Walking around the store, I became increasingly sad. Not counting the individual staffers at the cafe and cash registers, I saw one other employee on the floor. Apart from campers in the cafe, there were very few customers. I saw some books on the shelves by author friends and colleagues, but the stickers on the back betrayed that they’d been sitting there as long as six months, and the single copies there were the only ones ordered back then. No movement… and evidence that, like I’d heard, Borders has indeed suspended returning slow sellers to the publishers in order to keep stock on the shelves because the chain has had its credit revoked by many of those same publishers as a consequence of non-payment.

Dead stock on the shelves and no new stock coming in. Stagnation! I left without cracking open my laptop; I needed a different, more lively atmosphere.

Why The Death Of Borders Matters To Me

I worked for Borders — back when it was called “Borders Books and Music” — from 1995 to 2005. I started working for the company when the chain prided itself in stocking backlist titles, individual stores were encouraged to express creative autonomy in their merchandising and each location was truly a “third place” and a hub of the community with a full-time employee to serve that community with events and entertainment. It was a great place that served a larger purpose, and I was proud to be part of that.

When I left, the backlist was only available via special orders, merchandising was centralized, homogenized and codified in a huge binder of instructions that changed every few weeks and the Community Relations Coordinator position was long gone. The writing was on the wall and my own exit was years overdue.

Retail Abhors a Vacuum

I used to mourn the Borders that was. Now, I’m actually looking forward to the company’s demise. I am concerned for the friends who still work for the company, believe me. But I’m excited for the possibilities the disappearance of Borders might create. Barnes and Noble isn’t healthy enough to replace Borders stores in most locations… but perhaps small, niche independent stores with actively cultivated connections to their community might spring up again?

I think that would be neat. What are your thoughts on the demise of Borders and the decline of the book superstore in general?

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Comments

  • I buy not just books but everything online now with the exception of groceries. I used to read all the time and recently read five or six of Gregory’s books about various people related to the Windsors. These were all downloaded ebooks. Those books were good, but I am done with them. I used to read five or six books a month, but no more. The writing today is just not that great, and is about material I find uninteresting. I wrote three books myself ten years ago. Never sold them but it was worth the effort. We are entering final days in my opinion. Been coming a long time. I’ll go up to our local Borders today and see if it is going.

    • A

      Hi, Ranger6, and thanks for the comment. I’m not sure if I can agree that “the writing today is just not that great,” since that’s purely subjective, really. Surely people are writing books about things you’re interested in..?

      When you say we’re entering final days, I assume you’re referring to the final days of brick and mortar bookstores, right?

      Here is a list of Borders stores that are closing (pdf link).

  • The bookstore, I’m afraid, is going the way of the livery stable.

    The problem is the cost of stocking the shelves. In order to have sufficient inventory to promote browsing, you need to tie up a lot of money. That gets difficult when you try to figure out which books to stock. I suspect that some of the indies will survive for a long time yet, those with a good customer base and who have leveraged their inventory investments. Start up…? That’s gonna be painful. I’ve thought about starting one here but competing with the bookstore on my desktop? Not such an attractive proposition.

    There are some things that I think may make a difference. The Espresso Book Machine as a path-breaking prototype offers the promise of local print on demand. Put one of those in a coffee shop and there’s some potential for profit there.

    I think that the ebook — Kindle/Nook/Wev — that creates a return to a true mass market experience will actually be the best news for readers. I like my books as much as the next person. The heft, the smell, the feel of the pages are all things I enjoy about the reading experience, but the reality is that I enjoy the story much more than any of those things. If I have to sacrifice the “book” in order to buy more stories? I’m going for the stories every time. It’s a fraction of the market now, but at the rate it’s going — and as high bandwidth applications become metered in the tiered-web — I really think we’re going to see a collection of factors push readers off the non-refreshable cellulose displays and onto e-ink.

    • A

      Nathan, the addition of the Espresso Book Machine to a cafe / coffeehouse / salon is indeed an intriguing idea, one that I’ve fantasized about myself.

      As for “the tiered-web,” all I can say is I hope all of us in the United States are making it absolutely clear to our elected representatives that we do not support a tiered web. It’s a horrible idea that is counter-innovation and could undo the democratic nature of the Internet.

      Unless, of course, you’re talking about the tiered bandwidth costs developers incur when they incorporate cloud computing into their applications. In that case, as Emily Latilla used to say… “Never mind..!”

      • No, I’m talking about a real tiered web — like Comcast won’t allow Netflix because they now own Universal. And I’m also seeing the handwriting on the wall for metered service – a pay-per-bit idea rather than the “pay the highway tax so everybody can use the road.”

        I hope I’m wrong, but so far the elected officials don’t seem to have a firm grasp on what’s at stake.

        • A

          Far as I could find, the Comcast thing is either being contested or didn’t actually happen… the net was all a-flutter about it in November / December, but there doesn’t seem to be anything new on it. Do you have a link to the current state of the issue?

          I agree about elected officials not getting it in general, though. If they don’t… vote ’em out!

  • I still love going into bookstores to look at books but, to be honest, I always buy my books online now. I’m a huge bibliophile, but have grown to love reading books on my Sony eReader even more than hardbacks and paperbacks. Heck, I’ve been reading novels on my Blackberry because it’s always in my pocket for those ten minute breaks of waiting for something. It would be really cool to see the rise of indie bookstores for sure. I think it’s an exciting time. It’s pretty cool to read online novels and stories like your Hazy Days and Cloudy Nights. Lots of new ways and places to get my fiction. Hopefully it helps DIY people get there stuff out there more easily and to a wider audience.

    • A

      Dan, you’ll find no bigger champion of e-books than me — as I’ve noted here and elsewhere, my e-book sales routinely trounce my print sales, sometimes by an order of magnitude.

      But I think there’s something to be said for a physical place that inspires community and intellectual discussion, and once upon a time, Borders (more so than Barnes and Noble in its prime) was that place. What will replace it?

  • The Borders in Leeds was always packed out. They did a roaring trade as far as I could tell. Long queues all the time. I bought tons of CDs there. They even turned me onto some cool stuff. The first time I heard BPB’s Master and Everyone was over the Borders PA. Bought that, still love it.

    • A

      Mike, it’s perhaps telling that you bought CDs there, not books! Last year or the year before, most Borders stores eliminated their music departments (save for new releases.) Also, it looks like the Leeds Borders shut down in 2009 and the .co.uk Borders web addresses have all expired! I seem to remember hearing something about most of the international Borders stores closing down or changing hands…

  • Stephen Jacob

    I had wondered the same thing. Some people simply don’t want to shop on-line. Some people want to go out and browse a book store. So, perhaps the demise of Borders and Barnes & Noble (they’ve closed a bunch of stores at least, including the one near where I live) might leave enough room for independent stores simply because the remaining off-line book market is not big enough to support giant stores, but might be big enough to support smaller ones.

    I don’t know if it’s true or not, but I was having that very same thought just a few days ago. 🙂

    • A

      The question might be, Stephen, if there’s room in the market for off-line book shopping at all. My instinct says that the selling of physical books would make a good ancillary business for a destination location like a cafe, coffeehouse or salon.

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