Elegies for Borders
July 20, 2011 | 11:14 am
As people have had a day or so for the initial shock to wear off, the elegies and post-mortems for Borders have begun. For starters, my friend Eric Burns of Websnark has a thoughtful piece looking at his own reactions to the news, and considering why it might have happened.
Burns seems to feel bad mainly because the Borders café was the only place he could get a sugar-free raspberry latte. Actually, he says that it’s “one of the many things” he used to look forward to when shopping at Borders, but as he points out later in the piece, the main things he used to look forward to don’t exist anymore in the Borders of today. It used to be that Borders had “something for everyone,” with one of the most diverse selections of books it was possible to find under one roof. But the diversity of books suffered as Borders diversified into other areas to try to compete with on-line stores such as Amazon.
But no physical store can compete with Amazon on selection—or the remarkable ease with which Amazon lets people buy and consume e-books.
Oh, we’ve spent our share of money in Borders over the past year, but honestly if I want to buy a book at this point, I’ll get it on the Kindle. The Kindle means my bookshelf comes with me. I can read a Kindle book on my computer, then pick it up on my phone, then pick it up on my netbook later. Oh yeah, and even read it on my (by now outdated but still perfectly usable) Kindle. If I bought a Nook Color tomorrow, over at Barnes and Noble, I would install Kindle reader on that, as my friends have done.
Even now, Burns writes, when he wanted to buy something at full price to make a statement about his loyalty to the chain, he couldn’t find much in Borders that he even wanted. “It’s not that there aren’t books I want,” he explains. “There are. But they aren’t here.”
On Publishing Perspectives, Edward Nawotka has posted a pair of articles about Borders’s demise. The first looks at a chain of “bad decisions [and] worse luck” starting in 2001 that marked the beginning of the end (though other pieces we’ve mentioned in the past traced the roots of it back ten or fifteen years sooner than that), and includes Nawotka’s own nostalgic memories of the chain. He also wrote a shorter piece about his daughter’s possible reaction to the news, which includes this memorable passage:
At Barnes & Noble she likes to ride the escalators; at Borders it was the the well-worn five-foot tall stuffed giraffe. Week after week she hugged that giraffe. In fact, so many kids must have clutched at that giraffe, begging their parents to buy it for them as their moms dragged them away, that its legs eventually buckled, leaving it unable to stand. Would I be overstating the case to say that I have begun to see it as a sad, stuffed metaphor for the chain itself: something that once stood tall, was brought to its knees, and now lies on the floor, loved but unsellable at any price.
And The Bookseller has a piece by Matt Taylor, who formerly worked in the UK Borders’s marketing department and now owns his own bookshop, with his reactions and nostalgia. In the old days, he writes, “Borders felt young, vibrant and exciting, as if the best of America had been transplanted over here.” But it can no longer compete with the long tail of the Internet.
Looking at these four pieces by three authors, something that strikes me is the nostalgia they all have about it. But in all cases, it’s almost entirely only nostalgia. Burns writes the he used to visit Borders for books—when he lived in Maine, years ago. Anymore, I get the sense he would mainly go there for the sugar-free raspberry latte he couldn’t get anywhere else. Nawotka writes about buying Neuromancer at Borders #1 in 1984, and shopping at “dozens of Borders” all over the place thereafter, but the only recent purchases he mentions are a once-a-week stop to get The Financial Times for himself and a new children’s book for his daughter—more of a family-togetherness ritual than a real reason for shopping there. Taylor talks only about the old days, too (though, granted, since he owns a bookshop now, I wouldn’t think he’d have any reason to shop at a Borders store recently).
You can’t run a mainstream bookstore business on the nostalgia of your customers for how it used to be.
I don’t have any nostalgic stories about Borders or Barnes & Noble myself. I do have fond memories of briefly owning a 10% discount club membership at Waldenbooks, which is now one of Borders’s subsidiaries and will likely be closing along with it, but only vague, nonspecific memories. If you asked me to name any particular book I actually bought there, I’d draw a complete blank, (And we subsequently dropped the membership because it became too expensive; I think they wanted $50 a year for it, and we knew we’d never buy $500 worth of books so we wouldn’t get our money’s worth.)
Even before the Internet, most of my bookstore memories relate to browsing through old, used bookstores, stuffed to the brim with dog-eared paperbacks and atmosphere. My parents just didn’t have the money it would have cost to buy much that was new. (And they were both librarians. Perhaps the more frequent exposure to used rather than new books may simply have inculcated the attitude that “used” was the normal state of such things.) Even then, our attitude bore the roots of the one associated with e-book lovers today: the important thing is the words on the paper; it doesn’t matter if the paper is new or used (or, in the case of e-books, not paper at all) as long as the words are legible.
And after the Internet, I saw very little reason to shop at Borders—or Waldenbooks, or Barnes & Noble, or any of those other chains—even for physical media. Why should I, when Amazon would consistently save me at least several dollars a book (or CD, or movie)? I don’t have enough money that I can afford to waste any of it to support a chain bookstore that is itself run by a soulless corporation. If they wanted my business, they should have figured out something they could have offered me that the chain stores couldn’t. (And I don’t mean the browsing experience. I can get that from a library without being expected to buy something!)
In the end, I think I bought more books in the final days of my Borders’s liquidation than I had at any chain bookstore for the last ten years. Which is kind of sad, but I refuse to take any blame for “killing” the store. Or, if I do take it, I refuse to feel bad about it. Borders had ten to fifteen years to figure out how to survive after people started buying things on the Internet, and it didn’t. If it didn’t see the writing on the wall when Amazon premiered (and, indeed, even went so far as to give Amazon its web business), I can’t feel bad for it in anything more than an abstract, “it’s a shame 10,000 people are going to lose their jobs” kind of way.