One Month Later: Thoughts on Borders Books Closing

It’s been one month since Borders Books, the second largest U.S. bookstore chain, announced its plans to liquidate and close all of its remaining 399 stores (Wall Street Journal: “Borders Forced to Liquidate, Close All Stores”). Is it a big deal? Of course it is. It means a lot less physical books out there in the world for people to see, browse through, and discover:

“The liquidation of Borders is an irreplaceable loss of a big part of the book-discovery ecosystem … Thousands of people whose job consisted of talking up and selling books will eventually being doing something else, and that’s bad for authors, agents, and everyone associated with the value chain in books.”

NPR has quite a useful article summing up the slow process of the Borders Books decline, contrasting what went wrong for Borders, and what went right for its competitor, Barnes & Noble (“Why Borders Failed While Barnes & Noble Survived”). Two similar, yet different companies. Two different strategies, with quite different outcomes.

Borders certainly deserves recognition for pioneering the book superstore: large physical book locations with impressive stocks of tens of thousands of book titles (and of course, the couches, cafés, and free wi-fi). But, the persistent devotion to physical space and merchandise was nevertheless one of the contributing factors of decline:

“It made a pretty big bet in merchandising. [Borders] went heavy into CD music sales and DVD, just as the industry was going digital. And at that same time, Barnes & Noble was pulling back”

During the gradual but inexorable shift from print to digital book sales, Borders chose to dig in its heels and refurbish existing physical store locations, instead of focusing more of its time and energy on the increasingly important online market. Whereas Barnes & Noble made a sizable (and seemingly successful) effort to invest in online sales and produce its own successful e-reading device in the Nook, Borders did not. Two different strategies, to be sure, and Borders in retrospect had committed to the wrong one — by most accounts, Border had a staggering $1.2 billion in debt at the time of its bankruptcy filing.

Perhaps more fatal still, was Borders’ decision to outsource its online sales to Amazon, which was, as some observed, akin to “handing the keys over to a direct competitor.”

The increasing number of different consumer-friendly options to buy books or ebooks contributed greatly to the Borders downfall. For many people in many areas, perhaps Borders was the only game in town. That all changed when Amazon, or Apple, or Google, or Barnes & Noble, among myriad others offered book purchasing options, often very cheaper than what one would find at the bookstore. Location is important, but not as important as it had been in the past:

“‘The big-box store was a glorious thing while it lasted. To people in many parts of America, they were a kind of Aladdin’s cave’ … At Borders, people could access literary variety, contrary to smaller, independent bookstores.”

The New Yorker (“Books Without Borders”) wonders at the larger implications of the Borders closure; perhaps the more relevant question —

“is whether Borders’ collapse is the story of an overzealous company that has failed or a harbinger of industry-wide doom. Did Borders expand too quickly, spend money irresponsibly, and lose sight of the things that helped it grow from a single used-book store in Ann Arbor to a national chain? Or is it the bookstore version of Tower Records, whose bankruptcy and eventual liquidation in 2006 has since become a signpost in the decline of the record store and the massive economic reorganization of the music business?

From this perspective, it is hard to ignore the missteps that Borders committed, a blindspot to not adapt nearly quickly enough to a changing book industry: “It’s been said widely, but can stand repeating: e-readers and digital content are not part of some tidal force bent on destroying all that is fine and good about the written word. It is just another way for customers to buy books, for companies to sell them, and for people to read them.

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

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