Bowing to the Inevitable: Farewell, Borders Books. Where will we go now?

Borders is closing
Borders is closing...

The dominant trend of this journal, if any trends can be detected, are the geekly pursuits of the author’s adult life. A great deal of that life has been spent in bookstores. I worked in three when I was just out of college, all of which were part of national chain bookstores, mostly located in malls, all of which have collapsed long ago (Waldens, Brentanos, B. Dalton). Bookstores used the “anchor store model” back in the 80s, locating in a retail location where they could exploit the symmetry of a large draw retail store. On the East coast, Crown Books came along to challenge that (mostly in the Mid-Atlantic area). Crown’s model was to create an organic distribution chain using their own trucks and warehouses, and flog an enormous amount of bargain books, remainders and one-offs in the front of the store, concentrating primarily on selling best-sellers for about 10% less than anyone else around. They had the wiggle room to do that by locating in cheaper real estate (usually a strip mall in the suburbs) and the cost savings they could realize by distributing directly from the publisher to their own warehouse. Crown (and some other regional discount chains using the same model, notably Books-a-Million) had its day, challenging the higher priced mall-based chains (Brentanos, Scribners, B. Dalton, Waldens) for the casual book purchase market.

Around the early to mid-90s, Borders Bookstores hit the regional markets after dominating the Midwest (the chain started in Michigan). They offered something that book geeks hadn’t seen before in a national chain.. Space. Chairs. Comfort. A huge inventory. A staff that (at the time) seemed to know what they were talking about. It was a treat to visit a Borders back in the 90s, and I didn’t think twice about spending 2 or more hours in one, just browsing or finding a corner somewhere to read something, you know, with coffee from the coffee bar (another “natural” these days, but it was new back then). As you have maybe figured out by now, your humble narrator is a history and science fiction genre fan, and I would easily spend lots of time and lots of money in both sections of the store. The DVD section was usually inspired, as well. Right on the heels of Border’s success was Barnes and Noble, adopting almost an identical approach, inhabiting lots of real estate and bringing in coffee bars, music, DVDs, etc. So, for a while there, it was almost like we had a golden age of books happening. That is… until the inevitable happened.

I know, you’re expecting a rant about Amazon now.  Nah.

Maybe it wasn’t SO inevitable. As we mentioned in a previous post about the impact of the internet on game stores, internet commerce started hitting both Borders and Barnes and Noble pretty hard with the increase of Amazon– but Amazon didn’t have to spell their doom.   It seems impossible to accept now, but people seem to forget that Amazon didn’t make a profit for years after their debut in 1994.  It wasn’t until Amazon branched out of books and started to vend everything under the sun that they achieved the kind of dominance they enjoy today.

Personally, I think it was being a latecomer to the Epub world that really spelled doom for Borders and other stores.  Once again, they seem to be ubiquitous now, but the notion of electronic books is not remotely new.  Project Gutenberg started in 1971.   Books on CD were attempted in the 1980s.  Various formats of electronic publishing cropped up in the 90s, but the notion really didn’t catch on while the display was in Liquid Crystal Diode mode– it was just too hard to read and so unlike a book experience it proved to be popular.  Of course, the advent of E-Ink screens (dating from 1997) changed all that, first with the Sony Reader line… and you know about the Kindle, I’m guessing.   Barnes and Noble was slow to jump on the train that Amazon had taken, but proved to be a market innovator by pinning their fortunes to the Nook, then color Nook (and along the way creating their own web retailing presence… not ever as universal as Amazon’s but a nice chunk of revenue in any event).  Borders, in comparison, was a laggard both in web retail and e-books vending, and their alliance with the Kobo Reader came as a little too little, a little too late to reverse downward trends.  With so much capital tied up in real estate and inventory, Borders was late to invest in two things they needed badly to survive: A Web marketplace with a recognizable brand, and a specific device like the Nook or Kindle that was associated specifically with Borders.

The implosion was bound to happen sooner or later.  Last year, Borders quietly shut down a large chunk of their standalone stores and Border’s Express locations (formerly those Waldenbooks mall stores, some of them..), and filed for relieve under Chapter 11 as they restructured their debt load.  The hope being that a buyer might come riding in during the past year to salvage the situation.  Alas, it was not to be.  You’ve probably heard the news by now.

What will the impact of the closure of the other retail book giant mean?  Quite a bit for a lot of people.  For many neighborhoods, the sole accessible bookstore for miles in any direction will close down.   For Barnes and Noble, it will mean the death of an arch rival, and perhaps an assumption of dominance in the retail book vending market.. but I really wonder what the future will hold for even B&N.  Sure, they have made some smart moves with the Nook, but is the mega store the way of the future?  Signs indicate that it is not.. There is still a huge market for paper books, periodicals and other tangible items sold in bookstores, that isn’t going to vanish any time soon.  But I have to wonder.. will the demise of Borders provide an opening for smaller, more agile, more niche-oriented, tech-savvy bookstores to emerge on the scene?  Say, perhaps, bookstores that specialize in genres of any sort, such as romance, Young Adult (which is booming), Science Fiction, Mystery, etc?  Only time will tell.

In the meantime, I’m going to mourn the loss of an old friend, Borders Books.

Farewell letter from CEO of Borders
Farewell letter from CEO of Borders


  1. This is a very sad event. My favorite places, in no particular order, are libraries, bookstores, and museums. I spent many pleasant hours in Borders. It was a quiet, relaxed place, more social than a library or museum, and with the option of coffee! It was one of my “go to” places when I needed to settle my thoughts. I will miss it.

  2. You and are reading five by five on that one. I loved visiting Borders. There have probably been other bookstores that did coffee and books first on a small scale, but I always associated the trend with them.

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