Borders, the national book chain that has existed for 40 years, is now up for liquidation. That means that 10,700 employees in the 399 remaining stores will start their Going Out of Business sales as early as tomorrow, and the brand will cease to be by the end of September. A lot of questions keep getting asked about how it happened, or what caused it, or what happens now, but the answers are not all consistent. I’m a former employee and I don’t have all the answers. What I do have are observations, thoughts, memories and feelings.
First off, I am not surprised in the least that Borders is shutting down. During the time that I was an employee at our local Waldenbooks, I saw signs of the impending fate of not just the store, but the company as well. Stock prices dropped. The membership card had its membership fee dropped to be replaced with special coupons, and then the membership fee was later added on at a greater price than before. I’m not saying it was an underhanded strategy or anything like that. I’m just saying that I recognized what the underlying strategy was: restructuring the business plan to stem the losses that the company was reporting for four years.I don’t know much about economics, but I know that if a business is not doing well, that business needs to change if it wants to survive.
So, why was Borders having to do this? At a time when the eBook was new, Borders made a wager, and instead of focusing on digital sales, it decided to build more stores in locations that were prime at the time. Those costs, coupled with the rising rent of the spaces and the lowering sales, tipped the company’s scales in the wrong direction. It’s not just one reason that the bookselling giant has fallen. When Borders made that wager, its main competitor, Barnes & Noble, took the initiative and jumped on the eBook bandwagon. By the time Borders ended its partnership with Amazon and started its own online store, the damage had been done. B&N had taken the increased sales in eBooks, and in some cities (such as ours), they moved their stores to better locations. And don’t count out Books-a-Million, either; currently they are in negotiations to buy 30 to 35 Borders locations.
We’d like to think that it was just one reason beyond our control, but customers were (and still are, in some cases) the real reason that online stores have boomed in the past few years, and the brick-and-mortar stores are continuing to disappear. The beauty of online stores are that since there are no costs related to having storefronts or many employees to pay, products can be sold at a discounted rate. Online sales have been directly related to the brick-and-mortar store closings of Circuit City and CompUSA, so it’s no surprise that the same thing is happening with Borders. We could talk about the spending habits changing with customers as a reaction to the economy, but that’s not really news to anyone anymore.
So, why (if at all) does it hurt that a bookstore closes? For many people, the bookstore is not just a place to buy a book; it’s a place for people to find what they are looking for, even when they don’t know what that may be. Customers go to bookstores because usually those bookstores are staffed not by worker drones, but by readers and writers, by people who share a passion for literature. Because of that, an argument is being made that publishers and authors will be financially affected when Borders closes, because there will be fewer opportunities to discover new books.
I tend to disagree with that, specifically because of the availability of eBooks and eReaders now. Yes, I am an old school bibliophile; my wife and I have seven bookshelves at home, and we prefer the weight of a book to an eReader unless if we’re traveling. I think, however, that it will be beneficial in the long run for readers to have an eReader at their side, because a reader is ultimately a fan of an author, and not just a bookstore. Instead of having a salesperson recommending a book and handing it to a customer, friends or traveling companions can share an eReader between them and instantly purchase their books.
What do I miss? I miss the employees I’ve worked with over the years. We had a close family. I miss the regular customers that would come in with their lists and we’d already have their dedicated pile of titles. I miss the atmosphere of being home without being home, because we always felt safe in the stacks, surrounded by old friends on the shelves and welcoming in new friends every week on shelving carts.
I have had a dream for a long time–to walk into a bookstore in another part of the country and see my novel on a bookshelf, and see a random stranger pick it up and read it. There’s a chance that it may be increasingly impossible to achieve that dream, but that won’t keep me from writing. We value putting text to paper; we’ve been doing it in some form for an incredibly long time, and that’s not going to stop, no matter what format it is. And as long as we can put a value on it, someone will figure out how to profit from it.