What the Borders Books Closing Means

Following up on yesterday’s thoughts on the closing of Borders, let’s take a look at some of the “Now What?” and “So What?” of what the Borders Books closing means.

Certainly, the demise of Borders was the result of a slow decline which was a long time in coming, and the common reaction was one of inevitability when the bookstore chain finally did call it quits. Still the news is of significant interest to many kinds of people, and not just bibliophiles and other bookstores.

NPR wonders about the possibly ripple effect of the Borders closing: “Bye Bye Borders: What The Chain’s Closing Means For Bookstores, Authors And You

“But the fizzling of Borders brings with it severe consequences for the publishing industry — and the consumer. It has the feel of a ‘Too Big to Fail’ situation, albeit in the smaller-stakes book world, in which the toppling of a giant will send ripples into several smaller pools, and as with the crashing of the financial markets, it’s almost always the little guy who loses out.”

There’s no question it’s a blow to all publishing companies; how severe the consequences are will unfortunately remain to be seen. Here’s one attempt to measure the Borders closure impact —

“Kathleen Schmidt, a book publicist, provided this perfectly concise explanation on Twitter: “Here is how the Borders closing will impact publishers: Say you have a bestselling author and you usually do a 1st printing of 100K books. Out of that 1st print of 100K, B&N/Amazon would take a large quantity, then Target, maybe Costco/BJs/Walmart, then Borders, then indies. If you’re an author with a 1st print of 30K (a lot), you prob don’t have price clubs or Target. You have B&N, Amazon, Borders, and indies. Now, take Borders OUT of that 1st print equation. Also consider that B&N is conservative with numbers these days. That 30K turns into 15K.””

I’m not actually sure about those numbers — seems a little too high to me — but that skepticism isn’t based on anything other than gut instinct. Nevertheless, the point remains quite clearly that the closing of Borders will mean many fewer physical books out there in the world, possibly irreversibly so: “There is no other outlet big or solid enough to absorb the blow; there is nowhere else for all those paperbacks and hardcovers to go. The most logical thing to do is to stop printing them.”

That same NPR piece had what I thought was one of the better — and perhaps most sympathetic — closing thoughts on Borders Books:

“As corporate as it has become, Borders began as an independent bookstore in Ann Arbor, Michigan in 1979. Tom and Louis Borders bought out the aging Wahr’s store at 316 South State, and they hired a local rare books restorer to stock it lovingly with unique reading material. The restorer kept a binding workshop upstairs. It expanded into the impersonal, sprawling latte experience that we know today, but Borders started small, and it grew out of a love for the shared browsing experience.”

For even more good reading, check out The Washington Post (“The Borders are closing. We’re stuck here”), which has some interesting and unusual thoughts on the Borders closing. Take for example, this juxtaposition in thinking about the communal act of book-buying:

“Bookstores, unlike strip clubs, are places you go without knowing what you want. And that’s so rare these days. We go online To Look For Things We Have In Mind. … The art of shopping for books is different than the art of shopping for shoes. Solitary shoe-shoppers feel somehow furtive. Solitary book-shopping is the whole point. It’s like strolling through a store to select the furniture for your mind. There was a reason we took pride in our libraries. Our shelves were ourselves.”

Funny. And droll. But the underlying question is worth considering: does the decline of the physical bookstore location suggest that people simply place less importance on the kind of involved reading that happens with books? Maybe: “These days, we read book equivalents. We read more than we ever have, but less intensely. It’s how we do everything. We don’t have romances. We have hook-ups. We don’t enjoy multi-hour epics. We watch YouTube videos.” People are reading more than ever, but book-reading is finding an abundance of competition from many other types of content. There is something sad about a bookstore closing. But why? Bookstores are part of a community experience, and there is something inherently pleasurable in browsing books that exist in the world (not to bring in phenomenology into the discussion) amongst other people. Bookstores as physical places do provide a sense of serendipity and discovery that a recommendation engine based on algorithms (think: Amazon’s ‘Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought’) can’t quite replicate.

What caught my attention in this funny Washington Post column was a throwaway sentence, inverting the way we usually think of a digital book in relation to a physical book, by comparing the physical book to the digital: “lose the covers, and a book is simply a screen that is not living up to its potential.” Of course, there are things that the printed page does well that the screen can’t. At least not yet.

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And here some handy link roundups for your further reading pleasure:

  • The Atlantic (“Books, Borders and Beyond: How Digital Tech Is Changing Retail”) explains that Borders was “undone by a perfect storm of book digitization, the growth of Amazon, and an inability to turn a brick-and-mortar company into a zeros-and-ones business,” but goes on to wonder if Borders may be simply the first domino to fall as physical retail space continues to give way to online shopping traffic.
  • The Huffington Post (“E-Retailing and the Demise of Borders”) has a column which argues — while many factors contributed to the Borders demise, the fatal flaw was the 13-year head start that Borders.com gave to Amazon.com in the online book-selling. Yep.
  • The Wall Street Journal discuses whether the closing of Borders is a good thing or a bad thing for small bookshops (Wall Street Journal: “Small Book Stores React to Borders’ Demise”)
  • GeekWire wonders aloud: “Why didn’t Amazon and Starbucks form a joint venture to take over the Borders chain? It would have preserved Starbucks’ footprint in the stores, and given Amazon a physical presence to use as a real-world showroom for its books, Kindles …” (“How much do real bookstores matter anymore?”). Probably because Amazon did the math and figured it was more profitable for them to stay out of the physical retail space. But, that’s certainly an intriguing thought.
  • And, finally, The New Yorker (“Goodbye Borders: We’ll Miss You?”) wonders about the general ambivalence to the bookstore chain’s demise, along with a few “Daily Show” laughs from Jon Stewart — “Books: You might know them as the thing Amazon tells you ‘you might be interested in’ when you’re buying DVDs.”


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

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