Borders and the Fate of Bookstores?

With rumors of a Borders bankruptcy growing noisier with each passing week, the Wall Street Journal has an article connecting the dots between the decline of the book megastore chain, and the rise of eBooks: “Borders’ Woes Help E-Books.” The slow fade of Borders and its 600-something store locations worldwide has been tied to the advent of eBooks, eReader devices (and perhaps Borders’ half-hearted efforts to adapt in the same that Barnes & Noble seems to have done with the Nook), and the rise of Amazon’s market share. A couple of thoughts in the WSJ article quoting the always-interesting Seth Godin:

“‘The way something is sold influences the way it is made, and the book industry has always been about bookstores,’ … what will be published in the future will have less to do with what bookstores carry and more to do with what readers tell each other about new books.”

Godin’s last point about that social ways in which we discover books got my attention — and relates to a recent column by Washington Post pundit Alexandra Petri (“The worst part about the Borders bankruptcy”).

Where online book shopping can be focused, efficient, and based uncannily upon our user data, the physical bookstore is a more leisurely, less-directed experience that lets us indulge in taking our time: “One of the appeals of a bookstore is the serendipity. This is, frankly, impossible to recreate online. Yes, suggests other books, but they’re books you might actually want to read.”

As great as’s People Who-Bought-This-Item-Also-Bought feature is (and it can be pretty useful, even as far as up-selling tactics go), there is no real online equivalent to that decidedly analogue experience of browsing an entire bookshelf or store section at the local bookstore. Independent bookstores do offer those more human, personal touches, like handwritten Staff’’s Picks notes (Green Apple Books is a personal favorite).

More, from Petri: “Online, we’re cabined up in our own preferences. People suggest to us things that we would like, based on the other things that we have liked, or the things that people who like the things we like have liked. It’s personalized. That’s what we’ve been told we want, after all. More of what we like. But sometimes we want things we don’t know exist. How else to account for the popularity of meeting new people?” I’m inclined to agree here. There is something a little unhealthy about locking ourselves up with only the things we think we like, and insulating ourselves from anything that might be different from what we think we like. What I may have liked from my browsing history of two years ago may not be what I’m looking for now. Reading, especially the act of book-buying, strikes me as a very mood-dependent activity. Sometimes, we are in fact in the mood for something different, and there’s something to be said about the serendipitous element of the bookstore in discovering that something new and unexpected.

I appreciated the thoughts on books here: “Books, by definition, require concentration. They often have plots, or symbolism, or at least arguments you need to follow. In them, form and function mesh. They require focus, and with their decorous rows of text reposing on the page, they promote it.” Ideally, this is very much so. But we also needn’t pretend that the local Borders was (I decided to change my “is” to a more pessimistic past tense) what anyone would call a Bodleian Library sanctum of private reading and quiet meditation. It was a place where people may read or browse; but also where frustrated writers weary of listening to the same canned Starbucks muzak over and over again sought a modest change of scenery; where pleasant older readers met to discuss their local book club’s reading; where people occasionally had awkward first dates (you tend to see all kinds of things, if you spend long enough at the bookstore); and where college students pretended to be studying — it was a convenient place to be social. That opportunity for person to person socializing would be a sad thing to lose.

I remember watching first-hand as the Borders in Oxford closed. I can’t say I had any particular emotional connection to that store (it sure was no Moe’s Books in Berkeley, after all), but there’s something a little melancholy about the sight of an empty bookstore.


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I run the ThinkLab at the University of Cambridge, and research digital habits, productivity, and wellbeing.

tyler shores cambridge

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