No happy ending at Borders as bookshop chain dissolves

The final chapter has ended in the saga of Borders bookshops and there was no happy ending nor last minute buyer. The huge chain has, as expected, gone into liquidation and will close all of their remaining bookstores.

On the one hand it’s a sad testament to the power of Amazon, e-books and an apparent reduction in people’s demand for books. On the other it will hopefully invigorate independent bookstores across the country who have survived this long in the new and (permanently?) fragile economy. I didn’t dislike Borders, but I never liked it enough to be loyal. They sometimes had what I was seeking and sometimes didn’t but I never felt that they really cared either way, the ambivalence was contagious. The experience was too often akin to shopping for a screwdriver in a giant DIY/Hardware store. Functional but not at all engaging and far less than I want from a book or music shop. I wonder if that sentiment was widespread enough to have helped lead to their downfall? Judging by the vibrancy of independent bookshops in this town I can’t but feel the answer is yes. I also know some people who worked for Borders and the reaction of the company to any ideas that were even vaguely off centre was to squash them in case they were good and because they weren’t uniform. I could ramble on about their stiff and aggressive anti-union tactics that made some small headlines in the pre-blog late 1990’s but that would be rubbing salt in the wound I think.

The closure of the giant bookseller is of course going to have deep economic and social implications in an already dire economic soup. The 400 stores closing will result in more 10,500 employees being laid off and looking for related work in the retail sector won’t be easy I’m sure. The last desperate effort to  sell off the company and it’s assets at auction was unsuccessful and while the official letter blamed the economy and e-books I can’t help feeling that the personality of the shops was the biggest contributing factor.

In February when the company shuttered one in three of their existing shops thinks looked bleak but the fine print revealed that even then they already owed nearly $300 million to their creditors. You don’t get step into that type of financial malaise overnight. Why weren’t radical plans made in 2008-10 to reinvent the company? Where I live in a metropolitan area of about 4 million people Borders operated 14 locations. Fourteen essentially identikit stores, if you couldn’t find an import of the newest punk rock analysis that was getting rave reviews in the UK press in one store you wouldn’t find it in the other thirteen either. I know. I tried it. I was told they “could order it but didn’t stock it as there was no demand for it.”

a clockwork orange No happy ending at Borders as bookshop chain dissolves

That many stores was probably twice as many as the city needed, moreover I think taking a more European approach and having a giant flagship store in the centre of town would have made more sense. Operate a special location that may stock 3 or 4 times as many books as the other locations, thus becoming a shop where you were almost guaranteed to find a book that was rare. Customers might visit their local shops every month or two and make a special visit to the bigger shop at Christmas or when they went on a book shopping frenzy.

The other sad fall out isn’t just the jobs lost at Borders but all the related suppliers and publishers, sales reps and contractors that are needed to support 400 large shops. That’s a lot of lost business and will leave gaping holes (such as the two near me) in downtown shopping districts. Filling a spot with that sort of square footage can often take a year or two in a sluggish economy.

Borders ironically began as an independent bookstore not that long ago in 1979. Their expansion was probably too rapid and with such change they lost the very ethos of what being independent meant. Perhaps that lesson having been missed was the costliest of all.

Does the closure of Borders Bookshops signal the end of book retailing or a renaissance for independent booksellers? I hope the latter.

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