The death of Borders: Complicated grieving

For most of my 17 years in Boston, one of my favorite retail destinations has been the huge Borders bookstore in Downtown Crossing. Well-stocked and eminently browsable, I have spent a lot of time and money there. A ton of books and DVDs in my home library came from Borders.

Even as my credit card bill started to show more and more Amazon purchases, I kept shopping and buying at Borders. I did so not out of charity, but rather because it continued to offer good books at good prices, and I frequently discovered new titles and authors there. In addition, its cafe served good coffee and morsels, its magazine selection was second to none, and you could spend a lot of time browsing and no one would dream of hassling you.

Very soon, however, the store I have visited once a week or more will be gone, along with hundreds of other Borders locations. At the Downtown Crossing store, tacky going-out-of-business signs drape the exterior. Inside, the lights are dim and the AC is on low — presumably to save on energy costs — and there’s a palpable sadness in the building.

Lurking around the web, I read similar expressions of regret and even mourning. Borders may be a big chain, but its stores have served as community gathering spots, as well as a place to buy books and DVDs. Borders managed to make a personal connection with its customers in ways that Barnes & Noble has never achieved.

I think that’s why Boston Globe columnist Brian McGrory, in lamenting the closing of the Downtown Crossing location (link here), called it the “living room” of that part of the city. It was a busy and reportedly profitable store, an anchor retailer in a section of the city that has been struggling with business closures and empty storefronts.

Bookselling wars I

Who would’ve thought that Borders customers would be so captured by sentiment? After all, the bookstore wars of the 1990s pitted the superstores against the small indies. (Think “You’ve Got Mail” — the romantic comedy starring Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan — and you get the idea.) Among some, it became an expression of political correctness to support the struggling indies against the Goliath superstores.

Beyond the big cities, Borders opened stores in locations that had not been served by a decent bookstore, or maybe any bookstore. (The same could be said for Barnes & Noble.) These retailers brought books — lots of ‘em — to smaller cities and suburbs across the country. Borders also caught the DVD wave and soon began devoting considerable floor space to satisfy growing customer demand.

Bookselling wars II

But as the superstores cuffed around the indies, another giant was emerging online. Launched in the mid-90s, Amazon would take a while to catch on, but the bookstore wars of the 2000s became that of brick-and-mortar stores vs. an online bookseller offering big discounts and a vast website. Amazon then launched the era of e-readers in the form of the Kindle, managing to define and then largely capture that growing market.

Well, we know the ending of this chapter. Borders is soon to be done, Barnes & Noble and various independent booksellers will try to hang in there, and Amazon is riding at the top of the heap.

Writing books

In a Boston Globe op-ed piece (link here), author James Carroll shared the lament over Borders’s demise, while noting that the market-defining business practices of the superstores changed the publishing industry, and not for the better:

Profits once came, say, from 50,000 copies of Stephen King and 50,000 total copies of 10 other authors – authors like me, I should add. Now the money comes from 90,000 of King and 10,000 total of two others – with the other eight writers no longer able to get published.

Ironically, electronic and self-publishing options stoked by Amazon and other e-retailers are creating more venues for budding authors. As I wrote last year in a piece titled “So you want to be a writer?” for my blog Minding the Workplace:

…(W)e may be at the beginning of a huge transformation, one in which the negative attitudes toward self-publishing and other alternative routes to publication are dissolving, perhaps rapidly — even if the traditional book deal remains a sought-after prize.

Reading books

The demise of several hundred bookstores in one fell swoop is sad and troubling from the standpoint of cultural health. Carroll calls the disappearance of the brick-and-mortar bookstore “a massive cultural impoverishment.”

Still, what counts most is the reading, yes? On that point, those who love to read books will not run out of choices. Between online and brick-and-mortar booksellers (for new and used titles alike), e-readers, online sources, and public libraries (at least until state and local budgets disintegrate entirely), books are not going away anytime soon.

And yet, I will remember that every time I walked into a Borders, I experienced a book lover’s delight over what discoveries might await. I will miss that a lot.

-David Yamada

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This is the latest in an ongoing series of posts on reading and books.

Comments (1)

Chris WagnerOctober 29th, 2011 at 2:45 am

Me, too. You’ve Got Mail is my favorite movie.

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