Monday, January 24, 2011

The Decline and Fall of Borders

There's been a lot of talk in the book news (Brillig, Sarah Weinman's article, the Washington Post) about the decline and (perhaps inevitable) fall of Borders, the national book chain. I've learned a lot from all of these sources about the particulars of why the company is having trouble and if you're curious about what's going on, I encourage you to read any and all of the articles I've linked to, and to look for more. I'm not in a position to offer my own take on why the company is doing so badly; as a bookstore enthusiast I am in a position to have seen the effects of these changes and management decisions over the years- and I continue to love Borders. All of these black clouds make me sad.

I remember when Borders opened a big store in Boston, in Downtown Crossing, a very lively part of Boston, an outdoor and largely pedestrian mall with the original Filene's Basement, two large department stores and more. Borders was the first book superstore I ever visited. I loved it. I would stop in on my way to work around 7 or so every morning, settle in with a coffee and read my own book or browse a little before work. I went there so often the cafe staff knew my name and would have my coffee ready as soon as I swished through the revolving door. It was like a cathedral of books, with huge ceilings, endless selections not just of books but the kind of music I listened to, the kinds of movies I watched and the kinds of magazines I read. Alternative stuff, foreign movies, small-press magazines, and of course, the books. Shopping at Borders was more than just shopping- it was an indulgence.

And it was on my path to work every day; the wonderful indie bookstores of Boston and Cambridge were tucked away in neighborhoods far from my daily routine. (And now most of those don't exist anymore.) Oh sure, I'd been shopping at the Harvard Book Store since high school but a trip to Harvard Square was for many years a rare treat. I didn't have an internet connection at home and didn't care about Amazon. Barnes & Noble was at the mall and they sold everything I didn't read. If there was something I wanted, I knew it was going to be at Borders, and I knew I could go there whenever I wanted.

Over the years I noticed the changes. The diminishing selection. The increased presence of bestsellers at the front of the store. The disappearance of the music section and the movies I liked. How the small-press magazines seemed to wither away as well.

Then they started opening these awful suburban stores that had 1/4 of the selection and reminded me of the old B&Ns, while B&N turned into what Borders used to be. It was around this time that I moved to Cambridge and started shopping indies in a dedicated fashion. My Amazon phase came and went, and  I wasn't going into Boston regularly anymore. My husband and I started making once- or twice- weekly evening trips to B&N to browse and relax. I developed an interest in going to bookstores just to see what they were promoting and found that B&N was kind of an interesting place. Meanwhile the suburban Borders were getting more and more dismal.

Now it looks like 2011 will almost certainly bring some bad news for Borders. It's too bad.  I can't imagine Boston and New York without Borders, especially the Downtown Crossing location here and Columbus Circle in New York.  I know this is also bad for the book business but there are a lot of people who can tell you more about why that is than I can- I believe them, though. And I don't know what to do about it. Shop there as some kind of act of charity? I don't believe in supporting any bookstore- or any for-profit business- as an act of charity. Soup kitchens and homeless shelters deserve our charity; a for-profit business succeeds or fails on its efficacy as a business- and some businesses, even some bookstores, sometimes fail because they deserve to.

I support indies because I think they serve a purpose in our society and I love shopping them. I supported Borders for many years because I loved shopping there, too. Boston doesn't have a big indie bookstore like Powell's or the Strand and I loved walking into a huge building filled with books that seemed to have everything under the sun, and always coming out with something great. That's not what it's like anymore. I don't know what the answer is but I think it's a shame and probably didn't have to happen this way.