Borders – Goodbye, or Good Riddance?

July 19th, 2011

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So Borders is going out of business.

It is a sad day for the nearly eleven thousand hardworking people who will lose their jobs.

It is a sad day for book lovers who will have one fewer option. In some communities, there is now no more local bookstore.

It is a sad day for me. I liked Borders and its people, who have been unfailingly kind and hospitable to me as I’ve interviewed authors at Washington-area Borders stores.

But let’s not forget what Borders did, to attain its giant footprint.

It put lots of smaller, independent bookstores out of business. Somewhere along the way it lost its early vision of how to treat its own employees; relentless attrition left many stores with earnest but clueless staffers.

Over at Shelf Awareness, John Mutter writes:

Many observers have found all kinds of people to blame and myriad reasons for Borders’s collapse. The culprits include the growth of e-readers and e-books; the popularity of Amazon; customers who liked to lounge and browse at Borders but didn’t buy much there; the Great Recession; and a series of strategic missteps at Borders, including outsourcing its website to Amazon in 2001.

All of which probably did contribute to the death of Borders. But Mutter is spot-on in his assessment that…

To our mind, the single-largest factor for Borders’s chronic problems were to be found at the corporate level–starting with the unhappy merger of Borders and Walden and including, over time, the “category management” program, a revolving door of top executives and few people with book experience–all of which were exacerbated when control of the company was taken by hedge fund manager Bill Ackman and corporate raider Bennett LeBow.

It is a common belief that with Borders out of the way, Barnes & Noble – the last standing national bookstore chain – can thrive.

I disagree.

B&N may survive, but I don’t see how it will thrive, for it, too, must deal with our increasing loyalty to online shopping, our new love for e-books, and our resistance to the rising price of paper-and-ink books.

Bookstores see the handwriting on the wall. Or the text message on the smartphone:

Consumers now see the bookstore merely as another library — a place to browse, do informal research and pick up staff recommendations. “They type titles into their iPhones and go home,” said Nancy Salmon, the floor manager at Kepler’s. “We know what they’re doing, and it has tested my patience.”

If that’s the future, why do we need big-box, standalone, drive-the-little-guys-out bookstores anymore?

Until Barnes & Noble can answer that question, I’m not optimistic.

RIP Borders.

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