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.

22 comments:

rhapsodyinbooks said...

I think the quality of Borders has gone down, but still, imagine places that ONLY have Borders and no B&N. The big Borders on Michigan Ave. in Chicago - so sad to think of it gone. Even if you have an e-reader, it would be a shame not to be able to browse in a bookstore!

Laura said...

I remember when the Borders opened in Downtown Crossing. It was massive and the selection was amazing! I could find old BBC Masterpiece Theatre VHS or DVDs there.

I prefer Borders to B&N because they discount more. I always found B&N more stuffy and Borders to be more hip to the local culture.

I'm so sad to see that it might go away.

Marie said...

Rhapsody, exactly. The Borders in Chicago was amazing. I'm glad I got to visit at least once!

Laura, yes, I agree. Borders was more fun. :-)

limeduck said...

Hear hear!

>>
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 shop local entirely out of the selfish desire to maintain the local businesses and neighborhoods I like. If you're going to enjoy browsing or having a coffee and reading your own books at the bookstore, you'd better be willing to buy something once in a while to support the place.

bookmagic said...

I shopped at Borders after my favorite indie (and only one in the city) went under. I also used to shop at B&N. Now I am strictly Amazon. I feel bad about Borders but did they feel bad about the indie books stores that went under? And they started going under long before Amazon came along. I would love to have my indie store back, they had the best selections and introduced me to writers I never would have found at Waldenbooks, the only other option.

Frances said...

I think you make an excellent point when you say that Borders became what B&N used to be and B&N assumed Borders old identity. And it is sad. Somewhere along the line Borders decided to sell trinkets and toys and stuffed animals and a hose of other weird items. I do not think they were well-served by their terrible online strategies either.

Dawn @ sheIsTooFondOfBooks said...

You describe the Borders I knew 15-20 years ago in Syracuse. A huge music section with listening stations, periodicals that you couldn't get anywhere else, and always the book I was looking for (even when I didn't know I was looking for it!).

Moving to the CT suburbs ten years ago, I noticed a change. More empty space. Tiny music section. Mainstream magazines.

I believe we're thinking of the same suburban Borders now. When we moved here I thought it was the awkward layout of that particular store, but the empty floor and shelf space continues to grow.

Mistakes were made; it seems they can't catch up, no matter how they cut/change now.

Brian said...

I worked at Borders for a couple of years, part-time, while I was working a low-paying publishing job by day, and it was strategy that led to the changes you note here. In general, they gave store managers less power over what to promote/display, making it all come from the corporate headquarters, which led to Borders seeming like just another mall bookstore.

If Borders in Downtown Crossing closes, I may have to spearhead a campaign to make that huge space into a big non-profit center, focused on literary organizations and still including a bookstore of some kind. I really don't want to see a giant Crate & Barrel there, or have it stand empty next to The Big Hole that was once Filene's.

caite said...

you made so many good, true points.
I think if Borders fails..which they may or may not..is that they made a lot of bad business decisions. Can a brick and mortar book store succeed? Yes, they just have to offer something other stores or online shopping can not give.
They are never going to beat Amazon on price. Or selection. But I don't have any interest in going to a store that is more card, calender, gift store than book store and that is what they are now.

fatbooks.org said...

interesting post, especially on shopping at a store as an "act of charity" and the changes in borders. it's been over a year and a half since i've been in a bookstore, since i'm out of the states now, but before i left i generally went to indie stores when possible. sometimes more expensive, but i found that their selections were often more to my tastes...there was a store pretty close to my apartment that had more literary mags than the b&n across the street, and an entire section of graphic novels that the b&n didn't even approach. still, i remember growing up and going to borders...once a week my father, brother and i would get in the car and drive to delaware (no sales tax!) and spend a few hours in borders. first store i started picking up literary magazines, but as you write that sort of selection started to decline...

as you write, though, businesses live & die on the strength of their business practices. not so long ago we were hearing a lot about the big chain bookstores driving the indies out of business; maybe this is the chance for indies to come back. it can take a while to find an indie bookstore that's worth supporting, but i like the feel of community you can find there...i used to work at a used bookstore, almost 10 years ago, and my old boss there has been the biggest supporter of a library project i'm working on. i can't imagine a borders or b&n mailing boxes of books halfway around the world to an old employee; and maybe it's only REALLY a reason to keep shopping at that store when i go back to the states, but i'm going to view it more as a reason to shop the small stores in general. (act of charity though it may sometimes be.)

great post, and thanks for getting me thinking about this! i'm a little hazy on what's going on with bookstores in the states, and i appreciate the chance to get a clearer picture of what things will look like when i get back.

-- ellen

Florinda said...

"Borders became what B&N used to be and B&N assumed Borders old identity." I'm not sure I could have articulated that, but I think you've nailed it.

I think Borders remains in my mind as the store I discovered in Memphis 15 years ago - a huge, eclectic space I could browse for hours. The suburban Borders in my town isn't like that - hard as it is for me to see it truly - but it's literally the only bookstore in town, and I'd hate to lose it.

Zibilee said...

It is very sad to see Borders losing it's position in the book world. I remember when I lived in Miami, they were the only store that ever really had what I wanted. I used to go in on Friday nights and sit and get coffee and read. I spent so many happy hours in that store with friends and alone as well. This is just so depressing, and it seems like it's a trend with all the brick and mortar stores.

Thirdrail1 said...

I've had a lot of fun times in Borders too, but there's simply no way I'm going to lament the passing of these big chains. Not after watching them wipe out at least 80% of all other American bookstores. Something about reaping what you sow. I think it's from a Dr. Seuss book.

The selection at all the major retailers is just awful anyway. It's always the same four Tim Zahn books, the same one by David Quammen, if they carry him at all. Donald Barthelme? I'll have to check the computer. M.A.R. Barker? Are you sure you don't mean Clive? No, we're pretty sure the only book Thomas Pynchon ever wrote was Gravity's Rainbow, perhaps you're thinking of the next dimension over...

Good riddance, I say!!

Plus, I'm thrilled with anything that pushes the publishing industry towards the digital format, because right now I get many of the same blank looks from the internet that I used to get from clerks standing in front of their cardboard Danielle Steel displays.

heidenkind said...

The closest Borders for me was over an hour's drive away, so I was never very attached to the store. I know someone who worked there for a few years and quit about a year ago--she's definitely not surprised they're going under. Their management practices were totally loopy; it seemed (to my friend, anyway) like they were setting themselves up for financial failure.

Rayna Eliana said...

I am so saddened about the possibility of Borders closing, as I love the book store.

I read several articles in the past couple of weeks on the subject.

Kathleen said...

I used to love Borders. My friend's husband used to play chess at the one hear our homes and she and I would browse the store for hours. Over the years the store changed as you have noted in ways that didn't please me. I love a good indie store but don't have any to speak of in my area. I'm grateful that there are several good B&N's in my area and enjoy shopping at those.

Vasilly said...

Great post, Marie. I think the quality of Borders is slowly declining. I recently visit one of the Borders in my city and it was horrible. The children's section resembled a toy store instead of a bookstore while all the sellers walked up and down the aisles without asking anyone if they needed help. It used to be one of my favorite places to visit but not anymore. If that certain location were to close, I wouldn't miss it at all.

stacybuckeye said...

I'm a B&N girl, but we have a Border's only 5 minutes away so it does get some of my business. I hate to see any bookstore go down, but at long as one of the big 2 survives I'm good. My hubby tells me it will be lucky if either one is still around in 5 years.

Alexia561 said...

Great post! It's sad that they aren't doing well. I don't have any indie bookstores near me and the only used bookstore in the county went out of business, so I'm left with the big chains. Nothing beats wandering the aisles and discovering treasures you never expected!

Valerie said...

I definitely feel attached to the Borders name -- the original store was/is in downtown Ann Arbor where I lived for several years. That store was wonderful (haven't been there for 5 years, so I don't know what it's like now). I hope that whatever happens to the chain, that the original store remains!

Danielle said...

You perfectly captured how I feel about the store and the closings. I remember the Borders in Phiadelphia (a city shockingly lacking in indies and used book stores) - I spent many happy hours there, heard many wonderful authors on tour. That store always made me think of how Joe Fox describes his superstore in "You've Got Mail" (which I saw again on cable recently, and which now, a decade+ later, seems unbearablely quaint about both the internet and bookstores): "I said we were great. I said you could sit and read for hours and no one will bother you. I said we have a hundred and fifty thousand titles. I showed them the New York section. I said we were a goddamn piazza! A place in the city where people can mingle and mix and be."

Rebecca Reid said...

what you say about not shopping at a for-profit business as an act of charity is why I don't waste my time at indie bookstores either. Too expensive, I've found it to be poor selection compared to online. I'm just an online shopper myself because I can get anything. I haven't found browsing in bookstores to be rewarding. Just not my thing.