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Obituary: Borders Books & Music, dead at 40, a suicide: What it means for the survivors.

July 21, 2011

Like a lot of readers, Jennifer Geier visits Borders to find a book she likes. “Then I go to Amazon to buy it, generally,” she says. Congratulations, Jennifer! You’re a digital pioneer who just helped put your local bookstore out of business! I hope the few dollars you saved were worth it!

Not to be to single out Jennifer, who spoke to NPR outside the now-doomed Borders store in Arlington, Va. Borders was certainly badly hurt, as all bookstores are, by shortsighted book shoppers who use the bookstore as Amazon’s showroom. But the badly managed mega chain needed little help.

Borders, unable to find a buyer last weekend, heads to the liquidator’s chopping block now. By the end of September, the chain’s remaining 399 stores will be shuttered, tossing nearly 11,000 employees out of work.

In a statement reported by the Los Angeles Times, Borders president Mike Edwards blamed changes in the book industry and the challenging economy for his company’s demise.

But compared to its chief bricks-and-mortar rival Barnes & Noble, Borders practically committed suicide. For the details of how Borders made all the wrong decisions, beginning in the 1990s, go to the very good NPR story.

Here, let’s examine what the fall of Borders means.

Apart from the thousands of Borders employees now out of work, and the hundreds of communities and neighborhoods suddenly left with no bookstore, the impact on the publishing industry is likely to be dire.

Publishers are terrified. For one thing, much of Borders’ $272 million in debt is owed to the big six publishers. They can expect to get little, if any of it, back, according to another NPR story. Hundreds of jobs in the publishing industry are suddenly at risk.

“Employees at major publishing houses worried about layoffs because many companies have staff members who work only with Borders,” according to The New York Times.

Authors will be hit hard, too. As book publicist Kathleen Schmidt explained in a sequence of Twitter postings, with Borders out of the picture an author who yesterday would have gotten a first printing of 30,000 books will now be reduced to 15,000.

While Borders was not good at keeping up with technology, it did apparently excel at selling books — especially paperbacks. As The New York Times notes, “Borders was known as a retailer that took special care in selling paperbacks, and its promotion of certain titles could propel them to best-seller status.”

Already under siege by the rise of e-readers, like Amazon’s Kindle, and tablet computers, like Apple’s iPad, paperbacks may  now be in a spiral toward actual extinction.

“It saddens me tremendously because it was a wonderful chain of bookstores that sold our books very well,” said Morgan Entrekin, the president and publisher of Grove/Atlantic, an independent publisher. “It’s part of the whole change that we’re dealing with, which is very confusing.”

Is there any positive angle to the story of Borders’ inadvertent self-destruction? Mr. Glass-Half-Empty here, I tend to think this will only hasten the migration to electronic books (and the eventual demise of pleasure reading altogether). But others see reason to hope.

Certainly in the short term competitors like Barnes & Noble and Books-a-Million will benefit — possibly even moving to occupy some vacated Borders locations, according to the Times story.

And the best possible outcome would be a resurgence of independent bookstores, like the return of native wildflowers after the kudzu has been burned out of the meadow by a forest fire.

The Times quotes Wisconsin bookseller Lanora Hurley, whose Next Chapter Bookshop experienced a 20 percent rise in sales for June and July after a nearby Borders closed in an earlier stage of the bankruptcy.

“Everybody was saying those customers are going to go online,” Hurley said. “But there’s still a market for print books, and I’m happy to see that that is flowing to an independent bookstore. I’ve got lots of new customers.”

From your lips to God’s ears, Lanora, your lips to God’s ears.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. July 21, 2011 3:55 pm

    It was simple. Way to quick growth in expensive places. Then the market started changing. Then, Then just bad management . I am lucky. I saw this coming two years ago. Kept all my books out. Barnes and Noble is for for sale. I think I had said earlier. I had a chance to meet with a publisher who published 120 million books. He feels the industry is in half and shrinking. Sad , but the written book is going away. It will be a specialty item in the next 10 years.

  2. July 21, 2011 9:10 pm

    Borders was a microcosm of everything that’s wrong with old-style book publishing. I feel sorry for the employees who will lose their jobs, especially in this hideous economy. But I don’t believe this is necessarily a bad thing for everyone. It will open neighborhoods back up for indy bookshops who are now learning what does and doesn’t work in this economy. And I’d be careful about announcing the demise of the paperback: not bloody likely until all those raised on print books are gone, and even then, there will still be people who prefer the non-digital reading experience. By then, one-off book printers like the Espresso machine will be prevalent in bookstores, making the market for pBooks truly sustainable. They’ll have their place in the reading pantheon, if not forever, then for a good time to come. And no, I’m not a Luddite — I have a Kindle and I like it. But not for all my books.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      July 23, 2011 11:34 am

      Thanks, Mary. That’s a clear and persuasive expression of the rosiest possible future for bookstores, publishers and readers. Myself, I’m much more pessimistic — I won’t restate my doom-and-gloom forecast — but I am very pleased to have an alternative and more positive possible future so well stated. For once, I hope you’re right and I’m wrong.

  3. Ben permalink
    August 8, 2011 2:55 pm

    I’ve heard “bad management” and “suicide” from various sources but no where so far have I found any specifics – besides possibly the comment about too rapid growth, and references to falling behind the times (echo’d here). Can you explain specifically the sorts of operational and/or strategic mistakes that lead to such a catastrophic failure.

    If Border’s impact on the publishing industry is so severe, that must mean they were selling a lot of books. If lack of sales is not what did them in, what was it?


  4. Danzer permalink
    September 7, 2011 3:09 am

    Eight years ago when the bookstore market was still going strong, Border started cutting corners, and lowered their hiring standards. From staff that knew books to those that barely knew what a book look like. Service kept going downhill and this drove me to B&N. Management didn’t look at the sales but the pennies they could save. Top management kept changing and staying long enough to get their golden parachute and not the business they built and the customers they had. Electronic books do not hold the magic and feel of having any book in your hand. For the same price of an e-book you have an item you can treasure and memories you can share with your family and friends. Often I have enjoyed a book to the point of buying more and sending them to family and friends. You can not do this with an e-book.

  5. March 4, 2012 1:16 pm


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